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 Hero on the Hudson

Captain Sully’s Recent Honor Offers Insight Into I-O Psychology’s Place in Aviation Safety  

After he safely landed a place on the Hudson River January 15, 2009, Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger became a hero and a household name. The "Hero on the Hudson” was honored once again Nov. 12 at Purdue University, where he received his master’s degree in industrial psychology.
Shortly after takeoff from New York's LaGuardia Airport the afternoon of January 15, a flock of geese took out both engines on the U.S. Airways airliner piloted by Sullenberger. After landing the plane safely on the Hudson River, Sullenberger stayed on board until all 155 passengers and crew members were safely off the plane.
Sullenberger’s heroic actions earned him a great amount of press nationally, and his master's degree in industrial psychology spurred discussion among SIOP members about the usefulness of I-O psychology in the aviation industry.
In the weeks following Sullenberger’s landing on the Hudson, SIOP highlighted several members who work in the aviation and crew resource management industries. Members discussed the I-O psychology-related factors that came into play during Sullenberger’s emergency landing. Such factors include:
  • A highly trained and professional workforce
  • Teamwork and communication
  • A culture of safety
SIOP member Terry von Thaden said she believes the pilot’s experience in industrial psychology could have helped him land his plane safely.
“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.”
Von Thaden holds a PhD in information sciences from University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where she is 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.
SIOP Member Diane Damos credited 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.”
Damosholds a PhD in aviation psychology from the University of Illinois and is president of Damos Aviation Services in Gurnee, Illinois, a consulting company that offers consulting services on all aspects of pilot hiring.
To read the full original story on the Hudson River landing on SIOP’s Web site, click here.
Sullenberger’s I-O education was in the forefront once again last weekend when he was honored by the school from which he earned his industrial psychology degree as Purdue University's guest of honor for the university’s President's Council Weekend. During his visit, he received a Distinguished Alumnus Award from the College of Liberal Arts, where he earned his master's degree in 1973.
Sullenberger was later presented with the university's Neil Armstrong Medal of Excellence, making him only the second person to earn the honor. Armstrong, a former astronaut and Purdue alumnus, returned to present the medal at a dinner that evening. The Neil Armstrong Medal of Excellence recognizes individuals who have embodied the same pioneer spirit, determination, and dedication that distinguished Neil Armstrong's exploration of space and his later roles as a businessman and scholar.
In addition to his education, Sullenberger is also president and CEO of Safety Reliability Methods, Inc., a consulting firm that provides services as an expert in applying safety and reliability methods in a variety of fields. Through his work, Sullenberger was instrumental in the development and implementation of the Crew Resource Management (CRM) course used at his airline, and he has taught the course to hundreds of his colleagues. Sullenberger and other experts have credited his background in industrial psychology as one of the reasons he was able to respond well to the aviation emergency.
In his book, Highest Duty: My Search for What Really Matters, according to a press release by Purdue, Sullenberger writes that his study prepared him well for the challenges he would face, saying industrial psychology/human factors is "a discipline focused on designing machines that take into account human abilities as well as human limitations. How do humans act and react? What can humans do and what can't they do? How should machines be designed so people can use them more effectively?”
"At Purdue, I studied how machines and systems should be designed,” Sullenburger continues in the book. “How do engineers create cockpit configurations and instrument-panel layouts taking into account where pilots might place their hands or where eyes might focus, or what items might be a distraction? I believed learning these things could have applications for me down the road, and I was right…In my later years, as I focused on airline safety issues, I realized how much my formal education allowed me to view the world in ways that helped me set priorities, so I understood the ‘why’ as well as the ‘how.’"
SIOP Fellow Howard Weiss, professor of psychological sciences at Purdue, commented on how Sullenberger’s education could have prepared him for his the emergency landing.  
“What is interesting about Capt. Sullenberger's professional background is that he has been engaged in the study of humans interacting with flight systems and in work safety throughout his career, and these are among the things an industrial and organizational psychologist would study," he explained.
Weiss explained how I-O psychology affects every aspect of the workplace environment, in aviation and every other industry.
“Work is a fundamental activity for humans,” he said. “Also, people spend more time working than engaged in any other activity in their lives other than sleeping. Also, the success of any organization rests on the quality of its people and the extent to which people are engaged in their work. Even when factories are mostly run by machines, there are designers and operators. People are always at the core."