The Difference Between a Miracle and a Tragedy
Pilot’s I-O Training May Have Helped Lead to Safe Landing on the Hudson
By Stephany Schings and Clif Boutelle
After his amazing landing of U.S. Airways’ Flight 1549 on the Hudson River last week, the media heralded pilot Chelsey B. Sullenberger for his courage, but industrial-organizational psychologists at the Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychology (SIOP) say several other factors also played a role in the safe landing.
Some of SIOP’s experts in workplace safety and airline emergencies say factors such as the pilot’s extensive flight training as well as his education in industrial-organizational psychology may have been at play during the landing.
The Pilot Had Industrial-Organizational Psychology (I-O) Knowledge
SIOP member Terry von Thaden holds a PhD in information sciences from University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where she is in her fifth year as an assistant professor of human factors at the university’s Institute of Aviation. Von Thaden teaches course such as Aviation Accident Investigation and Analysis, Crew Resource Management, and Aviation Psychology at the flight school, which graduates about 80 pilots per year.
Von Thaden said she believes the pilot’s experience in industrial psychology could have helped him land his plane safely. In addition to his flight training, Sullenberger holds a master of science degree in industrial psychology from Purdue University. He is also president and CEO of Safety Reliability Methods, Inc., where he provides services as an expert in applying safety and reliability methods in a variety of fields.
“I think people who study emergencies and people who study behavior and workplace safety are really cognizant of looking at emergencies in terms of all of the things that can go wrong,” she said. “When things go right most of the time you can get into the habit of things going right. Pilots who study emergencies are really ready for them. They’re less complacent.”
Although pilots receive extensive safety and emergency training on the job, Von Thaden said pilots who go to college for aviation are much better prepared than pilots who just get on-the-job training.
“Pilots get training, such as Crew Resource Management, on the job, but they don’t get the amount of training they would get if they were to take aviation training at a university,” she explained. “The economics of the situation today are that you get minimal on-the-job training.”
The Pilots and Crew Were Highly Trained and Professional
Diane Damos holds a PhD in aviation psychology from the University of Illinois. She is president of Damos Aviation Services in Gurnee, Illinois, a consulting company that offers consulting services on all aspects of pilot hiring.
Damos credits much of the pilot’s success with the fact that he is a highly and technically trained pilot, the product of an American air system that is the safest in the world. His military background of flying jets was also a factor in the safe landing, she said, as military pilots undergo extremely rigorous training, perhaps the finest in the world.
“We have an incredibly safe air system in this country and pilots must undergo rigorous training that includes physical and intelligence testing that meets rigid safety standards,” she said. “Major air carriers have their pilots undergo this training every 6 months.”
Damos said this also extends to those who work on the planes.
“The mechanics keep planes in top condition and mechanical failures are at very low levels,” she said.
The fact that the pilots of Flight 1549 acted professionally could have also been a factor, von Thaden added.
“People who study professionalism have a higher level of professionalism in the cockpit,” she said. “They have a highly professional crew that understands the risks of each flight. I think that’s what this situation was.”
Flight Training Stresses Teamwork and Communication
Von Thaden explained that much of the flight training pilots undergo also stresses I-O psychology principles such as teamwork and communication. Such training includes Crew Resource Management (CRM). CRM teaches the duties of the crew, teamwork, chain of command, and that the captain is the final authority, von Thaden continued.
“It’s a catchall term for teamwork in aviation,” von Thaden explained. “The official definition is that it’s the effective use of any and all resources for the safety and efficiency of a flight.”
Von Thaden said a lack of communication can cause catastrophe.
“There are plenty of accidents and plenty of fatalities that have happened where the crew didn’t communicate with each other,” she said. “And sometimes another person on the crew believes they know what is best and they go off and do something differently.”
She also mentioned the fatal crash in Lexington, Kentucky in August of 2006 in which the pilots were thought to have been talking about nonwork-related topics shortly before the plane crashed.
“This training does help, but it’s a matter of professionalism,” she said. “For example, before the plane has reached 10,000 feet in the air, no extraneous communication is allowed in the cockpit. That directly relates to that flight being on the wrong runway.”
Every Second Counts
All of this training, von Thaden added, also has to become habit to a pilot and crew.
“One of the things we do as instructors is we want to train pilots to react out of habit so that when there’s an emergency they aren’t pulling out a checklist and going, ‘hmmm, Step 1,’” she said. “That is exactly what this pilot did. Here he is in one of the most dense cities in the world and he has to figure out how to land. He made the best decision he could with the information he had in the situation he was in.
Von Thaden said time management and reacting quickly is very important.
“When you’re in a plane, you can’t just pull over,” she said. “So what’s more important? Well, you’ve got to fly the plane so you don’t lose altitude. You don’t have much time to talk or think about what to do.”
The Landing Took Place in New York
Von Thaden said emergency training was not just helpful for the pilot and crew but also for those who witnessed the accident and came to help get passengers to safety.
“It’s actually not just what the pilot or crew did,” von Thaden said. “It’s where they did it. If this had happened anywhere else, the response might have been entirely different. But New York’s first response system has been so highly trained, you’re talking about a response system that has ferries trained and ready for things like this. After they saw the plane land, the ferries went right out there to pick up passengers.”
A Culture of Safety Helps
Tahira Probst holds a PhD in industrial-organizational psychology from the University of Illinois. She is currently employed in her 11th year as an associate professor at Washington State University at Vancouver’s Psychology Department, where she teaches industrial-organizational psychology and health and safety classes. Probst has worked with the construction, hospitality, and mining industries regarding workplace safety and believes training and knowledge in a field can only get employees so far.
“The research that I’ve done shows that it’s not just the knowledge you have,” she said. “The knowledge is necessary for safety, but it’s not sufficient. Just because you have the knowledge doesn’t mean you are applying it. You have to have that climate of safety as well. Things happen so fast, it really is about creating that culture of safety. Airlines themselves have to view it as important in order for their crew members and pilots to.”
Probst said that can be difficult in a time of economic strife.
“Airlines can’t really afford customer dissatisfaction and bad will,” Probst explained. “There’s a balance then that the crew must keep between speaking up when there are problems and causing delays or bad flight experiences. This can lead to people not wanting to speak up if there are safety issues.”
Von Thaden agreed it can be difficult but said airlines need to keep safety a top priority.
“With airlines, in times of economic hardship, the first thing to go is training,” she said. “But that’s what you need so that when that emergency does come along you are prepared and know exactly what to do without thinking.”