As a professional pilot for over 30 years and retired US Airways pilot I have a great deal of admiration for the professionalism demonstrated by the entire crew of US Airways Flight 1549. The three-minute flight following the bird strikes, subsequent wet ditching, and rescue, the crew performed the duties for which they were trained but hoped they would never have to use. They were both lucky and unlucky. They were unlucky in that it happened to them instead of any other flight that departed La Guardia that day. They were lucky in that they were departing a familiar airfield that had a wide, relatively calm river as an alternative landing site. However, the most important aspect of that day had little to do with luck. They were prepared – prepared to properly evaluate their dilemma, make the necessary decisions, and confidently execute those decisions as a coordinated crew to save the lives of all 155 souls on board, including their own.
Risk Management is an Integral Part of Aviation
There are three elements of risk management.
- Eliminate Risk-don’t own it, don’t use it, don’t do it.
2. Retain Risk-if you are going to own it, use it, or do it, there is a certain element of risk involved that must be accepted. Either accept the risk “as is” or temper that risk through good risk reduction practices or:
3. Transfer Risk-transferring the risk to someone else through contract or insurance.
The development and implementation of standard practices and training have historically been a proven formula for risk reduction.
Three Tiers of Training Mandates
Training Mandated by Federal Aviation Regulations.
The FAA sets the minimum standards for training. To act as a private pilot only requires a flight review every twenty-four months. However, commercial pilot training requirements can be annual or even semi-annual and can vary in complexity depending on the flight operation and approved operational specifications of the commercial operator.
Training Mandated by the Insuring Agreement
Insurance underwriters are in the business of risk transfer-buying your risk in hopes of making a profit. But, they are also very interested in reducing their risk.
As an aviation insurance specialty broker, one of my most involved responsibilities is negotiating the pilot experience and training requirements for my general aviation clients. They all differ according to the aircraft, type operation, experience and loss history of the flight crew and operator.
For the underwriter, it is a matter of reducing the risk as much as possible. Their comfort level is subjective and varies from one underwriter to another. In the current “soft market”, many underwriters have felt it a competitive necessity to loosen mandated experience levels and training requirements in order to preserve premium levels and retain business. As the market hardens training and operational excellence will become an increasing focus as underwriters attempt to stem losses rather than return to profitability through rate increases alone.
From the client’s view, it is a balancing act of meeting training needs and standards at a reasonable overall cost. For the most part, the operator who is dedicated to operational excellence gets the best rates, but the reduction in insurance premiums does not cover the cost of additional training.
Training Mandated by Professional Standards
Many companies and individual operators choose to train to higher standards than mandated either by the FARs or their insuring agreements. They have the need to fly but the downside of an accident is simply unacceptable. They implement additional safety and training programs driven by a desire to reduce risk to an acceptable level.
The military and NASA have always led the way in innovative training. After all, they have been on the leading edge of aviation technology, pushing the limits of human capability in a very “challenging and dynamic” environment. These lessons and methods migrated to civilian aviation. The use of standard practices, simulator training, and Crew Resource Management (CRM) has made airlines and corporate aviation one of the safest modes of travel in the world.
Even then, it has been the dedication of the individual airman to learn, apply, and teach others what they have learned which has made the difference. Fortunately, aviation has always been blessed with dedicated professionals.
The Consummate Professionals
Captain Sullenberger’s dedication to aviation started early. He was a private pilot in high school. He graduated from the Air Force Academy and for 5 years flew as an F-4 Phantom pilot, flight leader, and training officer, including participating as Blue Force Mission Commander in Red Flag Exercises, the Air Force’s equivalent of the Navy-s Top Gun School. He holds an ATP in both single and multi-engine aircraft as well as a fixed wing and glider CFI rating. He has been a turbojet flight engineer and a certified ground instructor. He has also worked as an accident investigation member for the National Transportation Safety Board, a NASA Aviation Research Consultant, and has trained hundreds of US Airways crew members in CRM.
“The Miracle on the Hudson”
In public statements and interviews, Captain Sullenberger has been quick to give full credit to his entire crew. He knew his crew was equally experienced. The first officer, at 48, was the youngest of the crew and had amassed over 15,000 hours of flight time. The flight attendants all had 25 plus years experience each. Those few minutes from bird impact to wet ditching to rescue may have been the most dynamic in their professional lives. They didn’t have time to create a plan. Their training took over. They did it instinctively. They were confident that they knew what to do and it showed. The passengers followed the crew’s direction and helped save their own lives and the lives of their fellow passengers. Without that preparedness by all the crew members, this accident could have easily gone in a different direction. For the insurance company, the cost could have easily risen from tens of millions to hundreds of millions of dollars.
Regardless of whether we fly fixed or rotor wing, we all have one thing in common-we never want to be confronted with a situation we are not prepared to handle. Sometimes that requires us to exercise our superior judgment to avoid the situation requiring our superior airmanship. Sometimes, like the crew on Flight 1549, we are unlucky. Either way, the cheapest insurance we can buy is our knowledge and training. If in doubt, ask the US Airways management, their insurance providers, and the 155 people on board US Airways Flight 1549 whether they thought the crew training was worth the time, effort, and expense.
In other words, we train to save time, money, assets, and more importantly, lives.