Synopsis: A few things have gone wrong recently for investors, prompting some to think that investing is for the birds. Stay calm, plan ahead and when necessary rely on experience to keep flying high.
It was a cold January day with temperatures struggling to get out of the 20s in New York, but the skies were bright blue and the flight crew of `Cactus 1549’ were grateful to be getting the long day started.
“Cactus 1549, LaGuardia Tower cleared for takeoff, runway four.”
US Airways Flight 1549 taxied into position at 3:26 PM with light winds pushing puffy white clouds along the horizon. In a few hours, they would land in Charlotte, then their route of flight would take them across country for an overnight in Seattle. The engines came up smoothly as First Officer Jeff Skiles added power and the Airbus A320 accelerated down the runway, rotating into a climbing attitude and feeling the earth gently fall away.
As the airliner with five crew and one hundred and fifty passengers passed through two thousand feet, Skiles noticed a dark spot in the sky moving toward them. Then the airframe rocked with a thud as if passing through turbulence, or in this case, a flock of Canadian Geese.
“I have the controls,” announced the Captain.
“Cactus 1549 turn left heading two-seven-zero,” came the command from air traffic control. The engines were losing thrust as the plane continued to climb. Finally, as First Officer Skiles tried frantically to restart the engines, Captain Chelsey Sullenberger leveled off and started a turn back toward the airfield. They’d been airborne for less than two and a half minutes.
“Cactus 1549 hit birds, we’ve lost thrust in both engines. We’re turning back towards LaGuardia.” It was January 15, 2009 and a potentially long day had gotten a lot shorter and much, much harder. And it wasn’t over yet.
On the ground, controller Patrick Harten immediately froze all takeoffs from LaGuardia in order to accommodate the aircraft in difficulty. He offered runway one three for an emergency landing, a tight left turn from their position to set up for a final approach. But tight turns require added thrust to retain lift and there was precious little of either for Cactus 1549.
“Unable,” was Sullenberger’s response, as if someone had asked him to reach for the ketchup with utensils in his hands. And the tone didn’t change when he added “We may end up in the Hudson.”
Harten couldn’t, and wouldn’t, know how severe things were in the cockpit as the radio communications gave no hint of panic or even mild alarm. Meanwhile, Captain and First Officer were assessing their rapidly diminishing menu of options.
Still in a lazy left turn and descending over the Bronx, the shoreline of New Jersey came into view. Harten offered runway three one, which would have given them a less aggressive turn but elongated the flight pattern to get there.
“Unable.” Was the anything to their right, maybe Teterboro, Sullenberger asked? Harten worked quickly and was able to clear the aircraft from nine hundred feet over the George Washington Bridge to runway one. But there still wasn’t enough thrust in the engines to maneuver.
“We can’t do it.” Having run through all of the potential scenarios, they were left with the worst case:
“We’re going to be in the Hudson.”
Sullenberger and Skiles, with over thirty-four thousand hours of flight time between them had been forced to settle on a highly risky unpowered ditching, flying a fully loaded glider down to the river surface below. The aircraft slowed above the small waves, hovered and then skipped once before settling into the freezing brown water. They came to rest abeam Fiftieth Street near three separate boat terminals and rescue efforts were mercifully quick. There were some injuries and hypothermia but all one hundred and fifty-five souls on board lived to tell the tale of the Miracle of the Hudson.
Experience counts. I have some in aviation and though I’m a few thousand hours shy of the crew of Cactus 1549, I can tell you that flying any airplane is a series of lessons on what the worst-case scenario might be and how to deal with it. Indeed, my first flights consisted of take offs and feigned engine failures where I had to find the best cow pasture on the Florida Panhandle to simulate a landing. Instructors would say things like: “What would you do if you lost power here?” Occasionally they would ask over the Gulf of Mexico and we’d practice ditching as a last resort. I’m sure glad someone else had to put all that theory to the test.
The point is that knowing where you are and what could go wrong in any situation are valuable skills for pilots as well as investors. Recognizing the worst-case scenario and preparing for it can instill the kind of confidence it takes to carry on a calm conversation while executing a controlled crash of an airliner stuffed with human beings. And it can give you the self-assurance to turn off the swelling tide of bad news and enjoy your day knowing you’ve taken the risks into account. If you’ve planned properly and prepared yourself, you won’t need a miracle to fly high when all is said and done. You’ll just need to recognize that bad things happen, that some can’t be avoided and that it doesn’t mean your goose is cooked.
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