Flight 1549, a regular U.S. Airways trip from LaGuardia, took off from New York at 3:26 p.m., bound for Charlotte, North Carolina. The captain, Chelsey Sullenberger III, known also as Sully, did all the usual checks. Everything was fine in the air busts—fine until two minutes after takeoff.
The aircraft ran straight into a flock of Canada geese. Almost at once, both engines were severely damaged and lost all their power. The plane was, at that time, heading north toward the Bronx, over one of the most densely populated parts of New York City.
Captain Sullenberger and his copilot had to make several decisions instantly if they were going to save lives. They could see one or two small local airports in the distance, but quickly realized they couldn’t be sure they would make it that far before they crashed. If they attempted it, they might hit a building on the way. Their next best option was to land on the New Jersey turnpike, but they thought their chances of survival were very slim, and of course they would hurt all kinds of people in the process. Their last option was to try to land the plane on the Hudson River. But it’s difficult to crash-land on water. One small mistake—catch the nose or one of the wings in the river, for example—and the plane will turn over and over like a gymnast before breaking up and sinking, killing everyone.
In the two minutes they had before landing, Sully and his copilot had to do several things we, as amateurs, don’t really get, along with the following vitals:
- They had to shut down the engines.
- They had to set the right speed, so the plane could glide as long as possible without power.
- They had to get the nose of the plane down to maintain speed.
- They had to disconnect the autopilot and override the flight management system.
- They had to activate the ditch system, which seals vents and valves to make the plane as waterproof as possible.
- Most importantly, they had to fly and then glide the plane in a fast left-hand turn, so it could come down facing south, going with the flow of the river. Having already turned off the engines, they had to do this using only the battery-operated systems and the emergency generator.
- Then they had to straighten the plane up from the tilt of the sharp turn, so that when they landed, the plane would be exactly level from side to side.
- And finally, they had to get the nose back up again, but not too far up, and land straight and flat on the water.
They did it. Everybody survived. Nobody even went to the hospital. The pilot, Captain Sullenberger, was the last person off the plane as it floated on the Hudson River, and he gave his jacket to a little old lady because she was feeling cold. They sat in life-rescue rafts for about an hour and a half before the harbor patrol could get to them and escort them back to safety.
Some might adjudicate the story of Captain Sullenberger as merely good fortune. But it’s not. There is a reason Sully and his copilot navigated this terrible situation without panic, despite tremendous amounts of pressure. They had been trained. The pilots had spent thousands and thousands of hours training in simulators, in lesser aircraft, in the classroom, and practicing on the same aircraft, where they rehearsed, in their minds and with their bodies, what they would do in such a particular emergency. Because they had prepared, they were able to perform confidently under pressure.
Greek philosophers had a word for this kind of preparation. They called it character, or virtue. You develop character through the long application of practices that once seemed impossible, but have now become like second nature. Virtue is the transformation from the arduous into the habitual.
Dr. David McDonald is the teaching pastor at Westwinds Community Church in Jackson, MI. The church, widely considered among the most innovative in America, has been featured on CNN.com and in the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, and Time Magazine. David weaves deep theological truths with sharp social analysis and peculiar observations on pop culture. He lives in Jackson with his wife, Carmel, and their two kids. Follow him on twitter (@fossores) or online at fossores.com