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Hope Still Floats: Lessons from a Falling Plane

My eyes were glued to the news story dominating the networks on Jan. 15 when US Air Flight 1549 collided with birds, disabling both engines, and yet the aircraft made a successful emergency water landing on the Hudson River. Remarkably, all 155 of those aboard survived without serious injury.

A few days ago, I took my first flight since the incident and was amazed to notice how many more people paid attention to the flight attendants as they gave the pre-flight orientation. In fact, I was among those listening more carefully and investigating how my seat could become a flotation device in the unlikely event of an emergency.

As I have watched the follow-up news stories and listened with admiration to the interviews with the pilot and passengers, I think there are some valuable lessons all of us could learn about how to respond during an emergency:

  • Stay calm and do what you do best. Veteran pilot C.B Sullenberger remained remarkably calm and focused. Passengers and crew have testified that the calm, professional voice of their pilot kept them remarkably poised and attentive during the ordeal. Likewise the cabin crewmembers followed their disciplined training striving to control the chaos by assisting passengers in locating exits and taking flotation devices. If the pilot and crew had panicked, the outcome of Flight 1549 could have ended much differently.
  • Pray. When asked what the passengers did in preparing for this emergency landing, one passenger was quoted as saying, My fiancée was crying and I just took her by the hand and kissed her and said ˜I love you’ and just started praying.” Jesus taught his followers to always pray and never give up (Luke 18:1).
  • When the odds are against you, don’t give up hope. The odds of landing an Airbus 320 on an icy river in the winter with no casualties seem almost impossible. But this landing defied the odds, reminding us that hope still floats. If we are not careful, we can let the odds of any circumstance pre-determine the outcome, whether it is the odds of getting a new job in a tough economy or the odds of surviving a disease. Maintaining a hopeful spirit, a positive attitude and a strong faith when the odds are against you can help you overcome.
  • Know when to get out of the way! There are times when the best thing you can do is not become an encumbrance. For example, you should never become a gawker at the scene of a house fire, an automobile accident or a catastrophic storm. And certainly, do not hold up the line during an evacuation or an emergency exit. While many passengers on Flight 1549 assisted others in exiting the plane, they also tell of one woman who had to be pushed out the door to make way for others when she stalled the line by refusing to leave without her luggage. If your assistance is not needed, get out of the way as quickly as possible.
  • Don’t let success change your character. Other pilots join the general public in applauding Capt. Sullenberger as a hero. However, Sullenberger himself credited his crew with the successful landing. Although he was at the helm of the plane, he said, We were a team. On Jan. 22, 2009, Sullenberger, along with the crew of Flight 1549, was presented the Master’s Medal by the Guild of Air Pilots and Air Navigators. Though Sullenberger is genuinely a hero, he hasn’t seemed to let his success lead to arrogance.

Hopefully, none of us will have a harrowing experience like the passengers on Flight 1549. But you never know when you are going to get caught in an emergency situation. If you suddenly find yourself facing potentially traumatic circumstances, remember the lessons learned from that falling, and later floating, plane.

Barry Howard serves as senior minister of the First Baptist Church in Pensacola, Fla.