Monday, November 13, 2017

Miracle on the Hudson: Pilots' vs. Passengers' Reaction to the Impending Plane Crash

(This blog was originally posted on October 13, 2016)

Photo by Rick Hustead

On January 15, 2009, US Airlines pilot Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger successfully landed the crippled US Airbus A320 he was flying, on the Hudson River after it was struck by a flock of geese. Sully’s and First Officer Jeffrey Skiles’s actions that day were a veritable master class in over-riding the instinctive fight-flight emergency response and staying out of a natural state of hypnosis to successfully do their job.
Clint Eastwood directed the movie Sully, which is based on Sullenberger’s memoir about the crash and the subsequent National Transportation Safety Board investigation about it. I remembered the incident when it happened seven years ago; until information was available that the jet had a problem, I was one of many people who wondered if the crash was a failed terrorist attack. The image of an airplane flying very low over New York City brought back memories of 9/11; only this time, the plane landed on the water and, miraculously, everyone on board survived and waited for rescue on the wings or inflatable rafts.
 When I watched the movie a couple weeks ago, I was fascinated by the way the Sully and Skiles were able to focus on their jobs throughout the ordeal. As the cockpit warning system continuously announced their imminent peril (“terrain”), Sully continuously updated officials at La Guardia Airport’s air-traffic control office of their status while trying to fly the doomed to a nearby airport for an emergency landing. Meanwhile, Skiles consulted the in-flight manual and tried every trouble-shooting technique it listed to re-start the stalled engines. Talk about a subconscious overload! As Hypnosis Motivation Institute founder John Kappas, Ph.D., explained, hypnosis is created by an overload of message units, disorganizing our inhibitory process, triggering our fight-flight mechanism and ultimately resulting in a hyper-suggestible state, providing access to the subconscious mind. Somehow, no matter what Sully’s and Skiles’s survival instincts were likely screaming at them to do, both men were able to over-ride the instinctive fight-flight reaction and remain alert, aware and able to do what they needed to do, to land the jet in one piece and save lives. Even when the captain realized they would not make it to a runway, his voice remained calm and measured as he made the announcement: “This is the captain. Brace for impact.”
Meanwhile, the director successfully juxtaposed the crew’s relative calm with evidence of growing panic and anxiety of the passengers after the strike. They were already suspicious that something was wrong after a loud bang reverberated through the main cabin followed by brief turbulence, which were caused by the birds impacting the engines. As flight attendants walked down the aisles to remind people to keep their seat-belts on, whispered questions and reassurances became more urgent. When the pilot told everyone to prepare for a crash landing, the terrified passengers began to pray, scream/cry in earnest. Loved ones embraced each other; people flying alone sent frantic “good-bye” texts to family members at home. Even complete strangers reached out to hold the hand of someone sitting beside them, not wanting to be alone if this was the end of their lives. These behaviors are consistent with drifting into the hyper-suggestible state of hypnosis.
Then the plane hit the water and floated rather than sink directly to the bottom of the river. The passengers realized that they were somehow still alive and in one piece; many people started to laugh and cry again as endorphins flooded their bloodstream. The flight attendants immediately started to hustle people out of their seats and move toward emergency exits to evacuate the flooding plane. A couple people jumped right into the icy river and started to swim toward the distant shore when they were told to get out. Watching this scene, I knew that this reaction was in response to a direct and literal instruction (Physical suggestibility). However, during an emergency like this, they were more likely—quite simply—in a hyper-suggestible state (somnambulist) and were already retreating into a trance or dissociated state of awareness. Surviving a plane crash is an ultimate example of a fight-or-flight- inducing situation, and these passengers were prepared to fight (swim) for their lives.
Meanwhile, Captain Sullenberger, First Officer Stiles and the flight attendants continued to usher the frantic passengers out of the jet, reminding people to leave personal belongings while offering whatever reassurances they could that rescue was on the way. When Sully finally exits, himself—after taking a final check for any remaining passengers that might still be cowering on the plane—we see him grabs the flight log and his uniform jacket from the cockpit. It is possible that his conscious mind directed these actions: It’s bitterly cold outside so I should take the coat; and this information will be helpful to figure out why the plane went down. However, I believe they were more likely examples of a subconscious known, behaviors he learned and reinforced over and over during nearly 20,000 hours of flying experience. From the moment he stepped into the cockpit and went through the pre-flight checklist to take-off and landing, the captain would automatically followed flight and safety protocols until the end of the flight/journey.
When the NTSB concluded their investigation into “the Miracle on the Hudson,” Captain Sullenberger’s experience piloting glider airplanes was also credited with facilitating this life-saving emergency landing. When every manual correction and over-ride failed to re-start the jet’s engines, Sully reportedly used his instinct, judgment and some of his glider experience to “land” the plane. Previous attempted water landings of other commercial jets had resulted in mass casualties, and it took 17 tries for pilots in flight-simulation tests to “successfully” land after a bird strike like the one that felled US Airways Flight 1549. It wasn’t just a miracle that saved 155 lives on the Hudson River, but Sully’s experience as a pilot and subconscious mental script that enabled him to do exactly what needed to be done, at exactly the right time.

Sara R. Fogan, C.Ht. is a certified hypnotherapist based in Southern California. She graduated with honors from the Hypnosis Motivation about Institute in 2005. For more information about Calminsense Hypnotherapy® and to set up an appointment, please visit
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