Oh Sh-t

What the Miracle on the Hudson teaches us about thinking in an emergency—whether a fire or a disastrous accidental reply all.

A New York City Fire Department boat floats next to partially submerged plane in the Hudson River.
A New York City Fire Department boat floats next to the US Airways plane after it crashed into the Hudson River in New York City on Jan. 15, 2009.
Jerritt Clark/Getty Images

On Jan. 15, 2009, the crew of US Airways Flight 1549 experienced a never-in-a-lifetime event.
Just 98 seconds after takeoff, some Canada geese found their way into the airplane’s two engines and brought them to a grinding halt. Over the next three and a half minutes, the crew managed to identify the problem, decide what to do about it, and execute what a former National Transportation Safety Board member called “the most successful ditching in aviation history.” How did the crew begin this historic performance? By uttering the same two words that most everyone comes up with in a moment of crisis: “Oh shit.”

We all experience “oh shit” moments. Running into the person you canceled a date with—while you’re on another date. Realizing you just hit “reply all” on an email that you’d do anything to have back. Noticing that your house is on fire—which happens to 1 in 4 people during their lifetime. Earthquakes, medical emergencies—whatever the situation, the first thing you’re probably going to do is freak out. Everybody does. What really matters is what you do next. And while many of us like to think that we’re cool in a crisis, science tells us that we’re seldom as good as we think. But with a little effort, anyone can learn a few simple tricks that can make the difference between looking like a hero or ending up as a statistic.

Calm the F-ck Down

In a classic experiment, two psychologists demonstrated how being amped up can be a good thing but that being freaked out is not. The natural human reactions we call startle, surprise, and stress can incapacitate us. At the moment that we need to be keenly aware of our surroundings, our attention can tunnel in on the scariest thing in the scene, leaving us oblivious to the other sights, sounds, and even smells around us. Countless armed robbers have gone unidentified when eyewitnesses could remember little more than the gun he was holding. Our ability to remember the things we do notice also becomes compromised. We can be told something, and two seconds later we’ll forget. Our hands tremble, and we jump to conclusions. When we’re freaked out, we’re anything but at our best.

The good news is that these normal human reactions can be rapidly reversed. With the right moves, you can go back to being an impressive approximation of your relaxed self. Firefighters, Navy SEALs, and snipers are taught breathing techniques that can quickly bring down your blood pressure, heart rate, and respiratory rate, and help rein in your sympathetic nervous system. Box breathing, belly breathing, hum breathing—you can learn these techniques in minutes and recall them with occasional practice.

Identify the Problem

Once you calm down, you’ll encounter the most underrecognized and routinely ignored challenge of any crisis situation: accurately identifying what all the fuss is really about. Each year, medical first responders are tackled after being mistaken for muggers. Police officers shoot the good guy with the gun. Drivers mention the firearms and drugs in their car when the officer only wanted to talk about their missing front license plate. People are electrocuted after trying to put out an electrical fire by throwing water on it.

Why are we so apt to misdiagnose problems during moments of crisis? Because for some unknown reason, we don’t practice it. While most organizations conduct emergency drills, the name and a brief description of the emergency is invariably provided in advance. The problem with that approach is, in the real world, situations such as electrical fires don’t introduce themselves and explain that they’re totally into water but that turn-offs include power outages and Class C fire extinguishers. Identifying the specific kind of emergency you’re dealing with is often the hardest part of the problem. Yet few organizations practice recognizing and identifying emergencies as a separate skill, and aviation is no exception. In a study I did at NASA, pilots performed expertly when emergencies were presented in scripted fashion but sometimes balked when they appeared at unannounced times and in unfamiliar ways.

In 2009, it took the US Airways crew just three seconds to realize that a flock of geese had knocked out both engines of a passenger airliner for the first time in commercial aviation history. If you want to get good at this step of the crisis management process, practice recognizing and verbally identifying abnormal situations in many forms, because in the real world, they can look wildly different.

Decide What to Do

Once you recognize what’s going on, your next step is to decide what to do. This can be hard for two reasons. The first is that good planning takes time, and in an emergency, you may not have much of it. Let’s say you’re in a crowded building and a fire breaks out. You quickly decide to head for the same door that you came in through. Not the worst idea in a pinch because you already know where it is. The problem is that, as a 1985 study showed, others are going to come up with that same idea, and this very natural tendency is what accounts for the jam-ups we see at entrance doors, while other exits go unused. Given more time to think about it, you could head for that lesser-used exit and bring a few others with you, redistributing the crowd and improving throughput. Operating with that kind of savvy requires prior planning, which is why literally everyone tells us to prepare in advance. Do the thinking ahead of time so you can just fire off the solution when it’s showtime. This is precisely why flight attendants suggest you find the closest exit (which might be behind you) before you depart—so you don’t have to go exit shopping after the plane has caught fire or is sinking into a river.

The second reason why deciding what to do is hard, and why preparing helps, is that we seldom possess all the knowledge we need. Let’s say we’re on a hike and a bear suddenly shows up. Is the bear the one that we’re supposed to slowly back away from without making any sudden moves? Or is that a shark? I know that I’m supposed to sucker-punch one of those two animals if it gets too close, but I can’t remember which one. So until someone invents a Shazam that gives advice on how to respond to wild animals that are attempting to maul us, it’s best to read the recommended advice before heading into the wild.

Just 13 seconds after both engines ground to a stop, the US Airways crew pulled out the Engine Dual Failure checklist and began to read the solution that had been prepared by a team of experts.

It’s unlikely that any of us will ever need to ditch an airliner in a major metropolitan river. But performing in a crisis is going to become more important for all of us—for at least two reasons.

Back in the good old days, the reliability of most anything we used or did was far less than it is today. Engines crapping out after takeoff? Pilots used to call that Tuesday. Today, it’s a rarity. Now think about what naturally happens to our preparedness as the likelihood of something bad happening shrinks toward the infinitesimal. Unless we regularly practice what hardly ever happens, our ability to respond to it when it does happen tends to slip away. Reliability can kill you.

The systems we use today are more complex and less transparent. There are seldom moving parts in plain view that allow us to see when things are about to go wrong. When complex systems lack transparency, dire situations can “come out of nowhere.” Driver assist technologies that help us steer, maintain our distance from the car in front of us, and alert us to impending collisions will begin the transition from optional equipment to standard equipment in 2019. What determines these cars’ response is buried deep in thousands of lines of code. Our cars might fail to recognize something in the road (like Canada geese) or steer us out of our intended lane. Ironically, the systems that were designed to lessen our workload might require us to remain in a state of increased vigilance in order to survive these increasingly infrequent events when they do happen. The Internet of Things promises to make our homes, workplaces, and entire cities like this.

As technology becomes a part of most everything we do, and as once-large risks become shattered into countless small ones, having the living crap scared out of us every once in a while may become a standard affair. We should all learn to breath, recognize, and execute the plan that we were smart enough to prepare in advance.

One second after the first officer said, “Oh shit,” the captain of US Airways Flight 1549 replied, “Oh yeah.” Two seconds after that, they were hard at work making aviation history.

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.