Practicing the Little Things

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Two minutes into US Airways Flight 1549 on January 15, 2009, Captain Chesley Sullenberger III suddenly had quite a lot on his mind.
His A320, having departed New York’s LaGuardia Airport on its way to Charlotte, NC, had just ploughed into a flock of Canada Geese. 
Almost instantaneously, both engines lost power.  At that point the plane was above the Bronx, one of the most densely populated parts of NYC.
“Sully” and co-pilot Jeff Skiles quickly determined they would not be able to reach an airport.  They would ditch into the icy waters of the Hudson River.  They now had one shot to save their own lives and the lives of their passengers.  Pilot and co-pilot had to accomplish the following tasks in less than three minutes:

  • Shut down the engines, and set the right speed for powerless gliding
  • Lower the nose to maintain speed
  • Disconnect the autopilot and override the flight management system
  • Seal all vents and valves, to increase the plane’s ability to stay afloat
  • Quickly bank the plane into a left-hand arc, so it would be going with the river’s flow
  • Level the plane so it would strike the water as evenly as possible
  • Do all of the above on the battery-powered emergency generator
  • Tell the passengers, in a calm voice, to “brace for impact”
  • Successfully accomplish a number of other tasks that are too difficult to explain to amateurs

Other than that, Captain Sullenberger, did you have a nice flight?

With no margin for error, Sully landed the plane perfectly.  All 155 passengers and crew survived.  New York City, still recovering from the horrors of 9/11, now had an airplane story that brought joy.

Miracle on the Hudson was a typical headline.   But further reflection revealed that the “miracle” had quite a lot to do with years of preparation for just such an unlikely happening.

Sully had developed a certain kind of character.  Theologian N.T. Wright suggests that those who acquire such character make “a thousand small choices, requiring effort and concentration, to do something which is good and right but which doesn’t ‘come naturally’ – and then, on the thousand and first time, when it really matters, they find that they do what’s required ‘automatically.’” 

On that thousand and first time, it may appear that a miracle occurs.  How did he manage to do all of that, when a single mistake would have doomed them all? 

The answer?  Practice. 

Chesley Sullenberger just happened to be an expert on emergency preparedness.  He had practiced the protocols for ditching an aircraft at least a thousand times.

What do you get for all that practice? 

You get a safe water landing, a phone call from the President, a public cry to run for Congress (which he refused), the chance to have Tom Hanks play you in an Oscar-nominated motion picture, and a cocktail named in your honor:  A “Sully” consists of two shots of Grey Goose vodka and a splash of water. 

What do you get for practicing a way of life that includes a thousand small personal choices: telling the truth, keeping a promise, going the second mile, staying calm in chaos, and choosing to be brave?

You get to find out, from personal experience, what so excited the apostle Paul: “Let every detail in your lives—words, actions, whatever—be done in the name of the Master, Jesus, thanking God the Father every step of the way” (Colossians 3:17, The Message). 

And you end up with a character that will serve you well – even when life occasionally serves up the need to brace for impact.