Monday, January 19, 2009
Alas – we needed some good news. And we got it.
Flight 1549 left the runway at LaGuardia as I was having lunch with a friend here in California this week. A few minutes later, I got a text message from CNN – BREAKING NEWS – something about an airliner in the frigid waters of the Hudson River. I shrugged, and went back to my conversation.
It wasn’t long before reports filled in the detail. It’s been the headline story all weekend, right up there with Tuesday’s run-up to the historic Inauguration of our 44th President.
All of us who travel by air identify with the passengers of the US Airways flight. We’ve been in those cramped seats. We’ve worked to block out the possibility of disaster as the big machine barrels down the runway under maximum power with a full load of passengers, baggage and fuel. We silently wonder if, just maybe if, this routine flight might become a headline grabber of its own. We clutch our book, whisper a prayer, think about the people we love, look out the window and watch Planet Earth drift away. We breathe a sigh, and comfort ourselves with the statistics – millions of flights and passenger miles without incident. We’ll be fine, we believe. Just fine.
So when a loud thump rattled through the passenger compartment, just ninety seconds into the flight at three thousand feet, all those pent up, unspoken fears materialized. Suddenly the roar of the engines went silent and the noisy thrust turned into the whisper of the wind holding up the wings and a hush fell over the long lineup of seats. It was as “quiet as a library,” said one of the attendants.
Moments before, up front, Captain Chesley B. Sullenberger saw the flock of large Canadian geese, just as one splattered across the windshield. Sully, as his friends call him, instinctively ducked. He heard and felt the thud. But the bird that ended his life on the windshield of the jet liner was only one of the airborne casualties. The two powerful Pratt and Whitneys ingested several more – too much fleshy, feathery mass to digest. In an instant, the hot, high-speed fans gummed up and flared at impact, clogging up the works and flaming out killing the power as well as the birds in the intense heat. Both sides at once. The big, heavy airliner became a glider, a few thousand feet over some of the most densely populated neighborhoods in America.
I’ve got to believe that Sully is uncomfortable with all the accolades. He just did his job. No question, he ranks among the best of the best. His charming wife called him a “pilot’s pilot” and described him as one who is captivated by “the art of the airplane.” He trains other pilots to fly the big aircraft. He knows the routines of flight as well as anyone. He’s a veteran who decades ago flew hundreds of sorties over Vietnam. And now, the test of his career came on a routine frigid day under the gray skies of New York on a milk run to Charlotte. Sully has lived with the burden of leadership for a long time. Now, engines gone, the succession of rapid-fire decisions will determine the fate of his passengers and crew and countless innocent people on the ground below.
No time for philosophical meanderings. Sully and his co-pilot, Jeffery Skiles, went to work. They were losing altitude. First instinct: a go-round, back to LaGuardia. Too far. Second choice, a general aviation airport. Also too far. Runway too short. The Hudson. Sully made his decision. Ditch in the Hudson.
Sully’s responsibility is simply to “put her down.” Safely. Few have as many landings as the Captain in their log-books. This touch-down was anything but routine. It was textbook perfect. Some are calling for a ticker tape parade – New York’s version of standing ovation.
In this highly populated area, in this digital age, it was inevitable that video and photographs would emerge. My personal favorite is the shot looking directly at the nose of the airplane still afloat, passengers standing ankle deep from wing-tip to wing-tip in the frigid open waters of the wide river filling the frame left to right with the silhouettes of one hundred-fifty some survivors almost as though they are walking on the water.
New Yorkers aren’t really comfortable with the word miracle. It smacks of a power greater than our own. New Yorkers are pretty much self-reliant as a people group. But it was the new Governor David Paterson who used the “m” word – comparing the happy ending to that familiar Miracle on 34th Street. The media pounced on the thought – The Miracle on the Hudson.
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On this Monday morning, the pile of tough news keeps growing. You are a leader. Personal stories are rolling in. Lay-off here. Drop in sales there. Closure down the street. Foreclosure across the way. Companies in jeopardy. Banks on the auction block. Portfolios bleeding.
It’s as though we’ve suffered a double bird strike. The nation’s economic thrusters have been cut off. We’re gliding and losing altitude fast. But think about it. Sully and Skiles set the pace for what to do in a national in crisis.
Leaders don’t retreat into the dangerous, time-consuming black hole of “why?” Leaders get to work. Leaders focus. Leaders draw on their training. Leaders pull out the instruction manual; go over the checklist. Leaders find a landing site. Leaders buckle up; brace for impact. Leaders reach out and help their neighbors to safety.
Some leaders know the One who walked on water. For them, miracle is more than a default headline. It’s an expectation.
These are leaders who follow – follow Him.
Copyright Kenneth E Kemp 2009