How to Pilot Through a Financial Crisis Like Captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger

Captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger’s now famous landing of US Airways Flight 1549 in the Hudson River is nothing short of spectacular. From the notion that a flock of birds can bring down an Airbus A320, to the decision to land in the Hudson, to the incredible landing, everything about the January 15, 2009 ditch in the drink is breathtaking. But above all else, the one fact that stands out to me as the most amazing among a string of amazing events, is just how calm Captain Sullenberger was both during and after the heroic landing.

And then I think of my 401(k). I think of people losing their jobs. I recall my mom about a week ago saying to me, somewhat in jest (I think), not to let her starve if her retirement account falls to zero. I think about the stock market’s historic plunge to levels not seen since President Clinton was in office. I think about Warren Buffett, the Oracle of Omaha, whose Berkshire Hathaway lost $11.5 billion in book value in 2008. I think about the banking crisis. I think about the absolutely crazy amount of our grandchildren’s money Washington has decided to spend to “help” us. And perhaps like many of you, I feel a great big unease in the pit of my stomach.

And then I think again of Captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger. If he can safely ditch a 42 ton plane in the Hudson without so much as loosening his tie, then can’t we confront the financial crisis we all face with the same determination, grit, and resolve? So in the two words that for me define courage in it’s truest, purest form, “Let’s Roll”:

Stay Calm: Sully didn’t panic. Think about that. He was the Captain of a large commercial airliner with more than 150 lives depending on his every move. If there was ever a time to panic, it was when both engines lost thrust over New York City. But panicking would not have helped the situation, and would have only made it worse. It’s not easy to stay calm in a crisis, but it’s what we need the most. Here are how some witnesses described Sully after the incident:

“After the crash, he was sitting there in the ferry terminal, wearing his hat, sipping his coffee and acting like nothing happened,“ one police source told the New York Daily News.

“He looked absolutely immaculate,“ a rescuer told the newspaper. “He looked like David Niven in an airplane uniform,“ the rescuer said, referring to the debonair British actor. “He looked unruffled.“

Panic leads to irrational, sometimes uncontrolled behavior. It affects our ability to think clearly and rationally. Staying calm isn’t always easy, and some of us have a great propensity toward calmness or panic. The key is to recognize how we react to these situations, and to do everything we can to stay in control. How do we do this? Keep reading.

Be prepared: January 15, 2009 was not Captain Sullenberger’s first day on the job. He had spent a lifetime preparing for that very moment. In addition to his experience as an Air Force pilot and hang-glider (some say sailplane) enthusiast, he undoubtedly spent countless hours in flight simulator training. And of course, he had many hours of experience flying commercial airliners. In short, he was prepared.

How prepared are we for a financial crisis? What would you do (are you doing) if you lose your job? Do you have a plan to deal with a job loss, and how would you go about finding work? Do you have some savings available for emergencies? Do you even have an online savings account or some other safe vehicle to stash your cash?

Do you keep up-to-date on current financial news? We all have lives to lead, and we may not spend every hour reading the Wall Street Journal, but we should keep abreast of basic personal finance and investing information. Do you have a financial fallback plan?

The more prepared we are for any crisis, the better we can handle tough times when they come our way. In the words of Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit, an Indian diplomat, “The more we sweat in peace, the less we bleed in war.”

Get help: Captain Sullenberger didn’t save that plane and its passengers all by himself. He had a co-pilot and crew there to help.

CBS Early Show Chesley Sullenberger

To give proper recognition to the entire crew on Flight 1549, here they are:

Captain Chesley B. Sullenberger, III
Age 58, joined US Airways (PSA Airlines) in 1980. He has a total of 19,663 flights hours

First officer Jeffrey B. Skiles
Age 49, joined US Airways (USAir) in 1986. He has a total of 15,643 flight hours.

Flight attendant, Sheila Dail
Age 57, joined US Airways (Piedmont Airlines) in 1980 and has more than 28 years experience with the airline.

Flight attendant, Doreen Welsh
Age 58, joined US Airways (Allegheny Airlines) in 1970 and has more than 38 years experience with the airline.

Flight attendant, Donna Dent
Age 51, joined US Airways (Piedmont Airlines) in 1982 and has more than 26 years experience with the airline.

When it comes to just about anything in life, we could all use some help now and again. The same is true during a financial crisis. Whether it’s a job lead or recommendation from a friend or co-worker, some help dealing with a possible foreclosure, or even a short-term loan, if help is available to you, take it. And recognize that finances within a family are a team sport. It may seem courageous to shoulder the burden all by yourself, and sometimes you have to, but if others are there you can rely on, get all the help and support you can.

Stay focused:The tapes of Captain Sullenberger’s communications with ground control are quite telling. Sully was focused, as you might imagine, on what was important. His communications with ground control were very brief and to the point. He communicated what he needed to, and then stayed focused on the problem at hand.

The lesson here is don’t get distracted. If you need a job, that should be your unyielding focus. If you are struggling to keep your home, every free moment should be dedicated to that goal. Sometimes we get distracted as a way to shut out the pain of financial struggles. But that won’t help us solve the problem. Know what you need to accomplish to overcome whatever financial difficulty you face, and focus on nothing else.

Do what it takes: One of the most amazing aspects of Flight 1549’s story was the decision to land in the Hudson. Maybe that decision would have been obvious to most pilots, but I wonder how many would have tried to make it to an airport instead. Captain Sully obviously made the right decision that day. He did what it took to get the job done.

I’m always amazed at people who struggle financially, but never seem willing to do what it takes to improve their lives. How is it that somebody can be on the verge of losing their home, but still manage to pay two car payments, the cable bill, and keep their kids happy with cell phones and unlimited texting? I don’t get that.

Sully was willing to do whatever it took to get that plane down safely. Are we willing to make the sacrifices necessary to overcome our financial obstacles?

Be hopeful: Emergency landings, like life, do not always have a happy ending. That’s just reality, and no matter how much we may wish it weren’t so, sometimes bad things happen to good people. But hope, above all else, gives us the desire and drive to keep trying. I’ve talked to a lot of people that seem to have lost hope amidst the current financial turmoil.

It seems that when things are going well, we forget the tough times, and when things are not going so well, we forget the good times. I work with a lot of smart people in the financial industry, and I’m amazed at how many of them sold all of their investments and stuck their money in savings accounts or CDs. Out of fear, they have done exactly the opposite of what they should have done, in my opinion. But somewhere along the way, panic and hopelessness set in for these folks.

When I hear somebody tell me how smart they are because the sold their investments last year or last month or last week, I ask a simple question: When are you going to buy back in? They never have a good answer to this question, unless their answer is never.

If history tells us anything, it tells us that things will eventually get better. And sometimes we just need a hero to look to for that little bit of hope to keep us going.

Published or Updated: April 21, 2014
About Rob Berger

Rob founded the Dough Roller in 2007. A litigation attorney in the securities industry, he lives in Northern Virginia with his wife, their two teenagers, and the family mascot, a shih tzu named Sophie.

Comments

  1. sammie ussery says:

    My family bought a small business in November of 2008. The Business is doing well all things considered but we cannot afford our regular bills at home. I am desparate and I am at my wits end. Any advice?

    • DR says:

      sammie, I think we need more details to be of any help. If your business is doing well, why isn’t it generating enough cash to pay the bills at home?

  2. Sherry says:

    I read all of the above suggestions, but please tell me how to stay calm and positive? When you have no hope, no job, no good credit, no friend or family member to a get help, and you have a kid, a husband who has two full times job with a little income, a lot of maxed out credit card due to the financial hardship, fear of loosing the minimum life you have made for years and fear of living in the street, fear of facing with your unknown future, fear of living by itself or fear of looking at your child’s eye and saying “everything is gonna be alright…” and …. Please tell me how?

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