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The Hudson River Airline Crash Landing is a Lesson in Safety Prep

Team development, team training and individual excellence in training and job performance turn potential disasters into safe landings.

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After his amazing landing of US 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.

In addition to his flight training, Sullenberger holds a Master’s 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.

The Pilot had Industrial-Organizational Psychology Knowledge

Following are comments from some of SIOP’s experts in workplace safety and airline emergencies on what factors may have been at play during the landing.

Terry von Thaden is an assistant professor of human factors at the University of Illinois’ 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. She believes the pilot’s training 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.”

The Pilots and Crew Were Highly Trained and Professional

Diane Damos holds a Ph.D. in aviation psychology from the University of Illinois. She is President of Damos Aviation Services in Gurnee, Illinois, a consulting company that offers 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 six 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. She mentioned a fatal crash in Lexington, Kentucky, in August of 2006 in which the pilots were thought to have been talking about non-work related topics shortly before the plane crashed.

“People who are conscientious about professionalism display 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.”

Damos agrees that the safe landing can be attributed partly to CRM. “The Hudson River incident was an excellent example of Crew Resource Management: teamwork that resulted in the safety of all passengers.”

Every Second Counts During Emergencies

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 to train pilots to react out of habit,” she said. “So that when there’s an emergency they aren’t pulling out a checklist and going, ‘hmmm, step one.’”

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 is 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 Staten Island Ferry and other boats went right out there to pick up passengers.”

A Culture of Safety is Safer

Tahira Probst, holds a Ph.D, in industrial-organizational psychology from the University of Illinois at Washington State University at Vancouver 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 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 quickly, 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.”

The Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychology (SIOP) is an international group of more than 7,200 industrial-organizational (I-O) psychologists whose members study and apply scientific principles concerning workplace productivity, motivation, leadership and engagement. SIOP’s mission is to enhance human well-being and performance in organizational and work settings by promoting the science, practice and teaching of I-O psychology.

For more information about SIOP, including Media Resources, which lists nearly 2,000 experts in more than 100 topic areas, visit

Edited by Carolyn Allen
| safety | training |


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