EQ Case Study: US Airways Flight 1549

For Captain Chesley B. “Sully” Sullenberger III and the rest of the crew of US Airways flight 1549, January 15, 2009 started off as an ordinary day.

It was supposed to be a routine flight from New York City to Charlotte, similar to thousands of flights Sullenberger had flown previous.

But just minutes into the flight, catastrophe struck. A flock of geese collided with the plane, effectively destroying both engines and immediately endangering the lives of the crew and passengers on board, 155 people.

At this point, most people would panic.

Sully didn’t.

Against all odds, just 208 seconds after the engines were struck, Sullenberger and first officer Jeff Skiles landed the plane safely in the Hudson, next to midtown Manhattan. All 155 souls onboard survived, in the event that is now known as the “Miracle on the Hudson.”

Undoubtedly, Sullenberger, Skiles, and the rest of the crew felt fear in those pivotal moments after the bird strike.

But not one of them panicked.

The Miracle on the Hudson teaches a remarkable lesson in emotional intelligence–one that can help you at both work and at home.

Control your thoughts

The dictionary defines panic as “sudden uncontrollable fear or anxiety, often causing wildly unthinking behavior.”

Fear is completely natural, and can be healthy when kept in balance. Panic, on the other hand, prevents reason and logical thinking. Most often, it paralyzes us, preventing us from taking needed action. Other times, it leads us to make a decision that we later regret.

In the case of flight 1549, Sullenberger and Skiles were faced with an extremely challenging problem, without much time to solve it. As they quickly ran through a series of emergency procedures, it became evident that they didn’t have the time or lift necessary to make it to any of the nearby airports. They needed to devise a plan, fast.

Captain Sullenberger’s decision to try landing in the Hudson was shocking, but it’s since been lauded as one of the greatest decisions in aviation history–and it resulted in saving everyone on board.

Sullenberger’s repeatedly stated that he’s not a hero, that the successful result of that day was the result of the collective efforts of all the crew on board. Of course this included their ability to avoid giving into panic.

But what can we learn from the events of that day?

Of course, those who frequently suffer from panic attacks (which involve symptoms like difficulty breathing, trembling, heart pounding, and profuse sweating) may need professional help.

But what if you’re in the other group? You don’t experience panic often, but you fall victim to it at times.

For example, have you ever experienced panic when:

receiving unexpected news
getting lost
not receiving a response to a message (or not receiving a phone call)
losing your keys, wallet, or something else important
facing a difficult or dangerous situation
dealing with the Covid-19 pandemic
Any of these situations can be serious, and lead to a natural feeling of fear. But panicking only makes things worse.

So, how can you face your fears without panicking?

Here’s where emotional intelligence comes in: You must learn to control your thoughts.

When that flock of birds struck the plane, Captain Sullenberger immediately felt a rush of adrenaline. “I’m sure that my blood pressure and pulse spiked,” Sullenberger relates. “But I also knew I had to concentrate on the tasks at hand and not let the sensations in my body distract me.”

Rather than allow himself to become paralyzed, Sullenberger first practiced self-awareness: He acknowledged his natural emotional and physical reaction. Doing this allowed him to then exercise self-management (self-control): He then focused his thoughts on what he needed to do to save those on board.

“Was this difficult to do?” an interviewer once asked Sullenbrger.

“No,” Sully replied. “It just took some concentration.”

Likely you won’t need to make an immediate decision that will mean life or death for 150 people. But you will face your own “emergency landing” scenarios. And your ability to demonstrate self-awareness and self-management can work to your benefit. It may even prove life-saving.

How do you develop self-awareness and self-management?

It all comes down to preparation. Just as Captain Sullenberger and his crew were well prepared for potential disaster, you can practice the techniques needed to keep your emotions under control.

These include techniques like:

  • The rule of focus
  • The rule of first things first
  • The rule of critical thinking
  • The rule of awkward silence

So, remember: The next time you feel a wave of fear coming over your body, don’t panic. Instead, take a moment. Acknowledge your feelings. Accept the situation.

Then, focus.

Focus on the things you have control over (instead of wasting time thinking about the things you can’t control). Then, start moving forward.

Because it’s the ones who refuse to panic who end up saving the day.


A version of this article originally appeared on Inc.com.

Related articles

Get a quick glance of what our readers like the most

EQ Case Study: Director John M. Chu and Coldplay

EQ Case Study: US Airways Flight 1549

EQ Case Study: Taylor Swift

tom hanks

Tom Hanks Drops Some Wisdom About Emotional Intelligence

Female employees who make mistakes are scolded and shouted at by angry bosses or co-workers.

A Case Study in EQ & How to Get the Most out of Feedback

5 TED talks to boost EQ, Common communication mistakes, and lessons from Steve Jobs

Raise your EQ.
One week at a time.

Join a community of tens of thousands building their emotional intelligence with EQ Applied.

Join the weekly newsletter
You really make the concepts very easy to understand.
You’ve helped me in so many ways.
Really practical advice delivered in a simple form.
I feel like I just had a psychologist appointment. Thank you!
This is exactly what I needed at this point in my life.
Your EQ Rules of life have helped in more ways than I expected.
The language you chose to explain EQ was simple and clear, which made it understandable.
As a social worker I really found this to be helpful.
I have adult ADHD, so these tips are amazing for people like me, for time management.
I especially appreciate your heart centered approach.
I enjoy every lesson.
Really helpful advice & lovely writing style, not to mention perfect timing.
I truly look forward to each email.
The simplicity and reality of the rules fit in with any stage of life.
Loving your course. Wish I did this 30 years ago.
Your emails are on my "open first" list. Excellent advice and insights.
So inspiring, encouraging, and educational.
I think this lesson has definitely made me a better person today.
Truly life-changing!
Your emails are the basis for conversations I have with my son and nephew.
Thanks for being real, legit, and genuine. Rare qualities.
I absolutely love this.
Sometimes you are better than my therapist.