Lessons from the U.S Airways Flight 1549 crash

Akin Yusuf

I am a firm believer in miracles, especially regarding the hand of God in the affairs of man. This often happens in mysterious and in most cases inexplicable circumstances. At the same time, I also believe that miracles do not just happen. The environment for it has to be right. In other words, there is also the human element, which has to do with articulation, hard work and proper planning. With all these in place, God intervenes to show the mere mortal why indeed He is the Almighty.

Take the example of Barrack Obama’s election and subsequent inauguration last Tuesday, as the 44th President of the United States of America, thus, becoming the first African American to attain such an exalted position. In fact, knowing Americans and the type of politics they play, especially in relation to blacks, there was no way this would have been possible, at least not at this time. But, the circumstance was right. God designed it, and also made possible the emergence of Barack Obama, an articulate young man, with irresistible credentials, which made him acceptable to the greater population of Americans. And before our very eyes the impossible became possible.

Then look at last week’s air mishap, involving the U.S Airways Flight 1549, en route Charlotte Douglas International Airport from La Guardia Airport in New York City, which made a surprise landing on the Hudson River barely six minutes after take-off, with all its 155 occupants coming out alive, nothing would have been more appropriate to justify the hand of God in the affairs of man. To avert the impending danger, God had to use 58 year-old, Captain Chesley B. Sullenberger 111, a holder of both Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in Psychology and since 2007, Head of a Safety Consulting Firm, with over seven years experience as an Air force fighter Pilot, a Flight Instructor, Airline Pilots Safety Chairman; and, Member of Accident Investigation and National Technical Committee; as pilot of this aircraft at this particular time. For the Wall Street Journal, Captain Sullenberger “achieved one of the rarest and most technically challenging feats in commercial aviation”, while for the New York Times, “if anyone could do it, it would be him”.

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A few lessons came out of this particular air mishap. The first is that training, especially in the modern world, has now become serious business. There is no doubt that both the Pilot and Crew are well-trained. Given his background, Captain Sullenberger obviously would have practised emergency procedures over a long time. Also, from the way the flight attendants handled the accident, it is evident that they are equally adept with evacuation procedures. Even the attitude of firefighters, police and emergency medical responders indicated their preparedness to deal with any possible injuries that may arise from the accident. There was no confusion of any sort as everybody seemed prepared. Because everyone had been trained extensively, decisions which usually took longer to make were made in an instant. In other words, solid, focused training has now become a critical element for both national and organizational success.

However, the more serious lesson from the incident relates to the efficacy of America’s disaster management systems. As soon as the plane landed on water, local ferries and tugs began almost immediately to rescue passengers. Within minutes, the New York City Fire Department; New York City Police Department; and, the U.S Coast Guard; were on hand to help with the rescue and recovery effort with 35 Ambulances on standby. Similarly, there were police helicopters as well as vessel and police rescue divers, in addition to 30 other Ambulances that were donated by several organizations including hospitals, even as the New York Water Taxi also sent boats to the scene. It was obviously because of these that aside from a flight attendant that had two broken legs and the 78 others that were treated mostly for minor injuries and exposure to cold every other person came out unhurt.

Nigeria has a lot to learn from this incident. Unfortunately, the country’s huge population (140m+), expansive coastline and geographical features including the extensive Niger Delta, expansive belts of hills and plateaus in the Middle Belt and North East as well as a vast land further North, makes it a difficult and expensive terrain in terms of disaster management. To make matters worse, lack of trained personnel and equipment especially for search and rescue operations has further made disaster management a very difficult task in Nigeria. All these have manifested in poor handling of some of the disasters the country has witnessed in the recent past including the natural ones (thunder storms, flooding, soil erosion etc) and the man-made ones (bomb explosion, conflict/crisis, oil spillage, multiple car accidents, air crashes etc).

But the fact still remains that any nation desirous of socio-economic development must fashion disaster management into its planning processes. What this means is that in siting public infrastructure (markets, stadia, roads, schools etc) issues of disaster management must be taken into consideration especially to make these places accessible in times of emergency. Furthermore, we must equip the institutions charged with disaster management to enable them operate effectively. For instance, it would be useless to have fire fighters without water; neither can we send the police to enforce discipline without the necessary tools and equipment. At the same time, it will not be proper for these agencies to rely completely on the private sector for the necessary equipment to work. In the end, only proper planning and adequate funding can make disaster management less challenging.

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