I’ve got an op-ed today in the LA Times on how Captain Sullenberger managed to stay calm in the face of terrifying circumstances:
We can all learn something from Capt. Chesley B. “Sully” Sullenberger III. After his US Airways plane lost power and the smell of smoke and jet fuel filled the cabin, he needed to make a decision. The air traffic controllers were instructing him to proceed to a small airport in Teterboro, N.J., which was less than 10 miles to the west. But could the plane make it that far? Or would it crash in the Bronx?
In recent years, neuroscientists have been able to see what happens inside the brain when people, like Sullenberger, are forced to make decisions under pressure. Though the typical assumption is that some people don’t feel fear — that they are somehow less scared than the rest of us — that assumption turns out to be false. The fear circuits in the brain, such as the amygdala, generate their response automatically; it’s almost certain that everyone on board Flight 1549 was terrified.
What, then, allows people like Sullenberger to make effective decisions in harrowing circumstances? How do they keep their fear from turning into panic? Scientists have found that the crucial variable is the ability to balance visceral emotions against a more rational and deliberate thought process, which is centered in the prefrontal cortex. This balancing act is known as metacognition — a sort of thinking about thinking.
Pilots have a different name for this skill: They call it “deliberate calm,” because staying calm under fraught circumstances requires both conscious effort and regular practice.
This is where flight simulators enter the picture. The advantage of these realistic simulators, which have been in widespread use since the early 1980s, is that they allow pilots to practice extreme flight scenarios, such as a total loss of engine power over water. The training provides pilots with important technical skills — they can practice flying crippled planes — but it also teaches them something more important: how to draw on an optimal blend of reason and emotion. They learn how to ignore their fear when fear isn’t useful and how to make quick, complicated decisions in the most fraught situations. Flight crews don’t panic because they’ve practiced staying calm.
Read the whole thing.