Monday, April 27, 2009

Flying by the seat of your pants

I saw a fascinating show on the Discovery Channel last night about the US Airways jet that crash-landed in the Hudson River. There was audio from the plane to the tower and from the tower to rescue vehicles as well as actual footage of the plane going down.

Flight 1549, flying to Charlotte, NC out of La Guardia, took off around 3:30 p.m. Three minutes later Captain Chesley Sullenberger reported that a double bird strike took out both engines. Knowing he couldn't make it back to La Guardia and not certain he could make it to an alternate airport in New Jersey, Captain Sullenberger landed the plane in the icy Hudson River, missing the George Washington Bridge by less than 1,000 feet.

Immediately after the bird strike, the co-pilot, Jeff Skiles, began the three-page sequence to refire the engines (that's right, three pages). All the while the captain made the necessary adjustments on the fly to ensure that the plane cleared the bridge and hit the water at the right angle and speed to prevent it from breaking apart.

According to the show, he had to hit the river at an 11 degree angle at 150 mph to avert disaster. That meant putting the nose of the plane down in order to maintain speed but pulling up in time to avoid the engines hitting the river before the rear of the plane.

What Captain Sullenberger did was simply astounding. He had a gameplan for an uneventful flight to Charlotte, but, when confronted with occurences he had no idea were coming, he was able to maintain his calm and plot a new strategy -- and then change that strategy the instant it appeared it would not work.

It's easy to script out a cross-examination or voir dire or closing argument. It's easy to keep your head glued to your notes when questioning a witness. It's all too easy to be rigid in the preparation of a case. To be successful you must be flexible, you must be willing to change directions in an instant and you must be able to adjust your case strategy on the fly. Just like a pilot never knows when disaster may befall him, you never really know what a witness will say until he gets up on that stand.

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