I recently had the honor of listening to Jeff Skiles speak for about an hour and a half talking about a few different topics, the main one being the afternoon which landed him into the spotlight, and the Hudson River. It is a truly amazing tale. To hear it from one of the men who was actually in the cockpit of the airbus was a whole new perspective that you really can’t get any where else. You can read the voice recording transcripts. You can watch youtube clips. Read accident reports on the internet. But an eye witness account from the cockpit is just a perspective you don’t get anywhere else. The little thoughts that went through Skiles head, the emotions and feelings felt by the two pilots. The thoughts behind the actions that took place that cold afternoon. It really completes the amount of data that is available on the event. He gave the whole account starting from the morning where they started out in Charlotte NC, and then as much detail as an hour and a half would allow about the accident and what the crews actions and thoughts were, as well as what they later found out was happening around them.
There was one bit in particular that I sat there and thought about for a while. It was the cockpit communication between Sullenburger and Skiles during the three and a half minutes the aircraft was falling out of the sky. They both went down to Washington DC to listen to the cockpit voice recording and the board who was in charge of analyzing it asked them some questions about how certain things were communicated between the two aviators when nothing was said on the tape. They both replied that there was an acute awareness during the emergency of not only what each was tasked with, but also exactly everything that was going on around them, like what the other one was doing, and where they were and so on. Neither of them could explain it, but both were very certain of this phenomenon. They both did their job, but knew exactly what the other person was doing too, without really talking about it.
I have a romantic idea about this. There is a scene in the movie Apollo 13 that captures it. Commander Jim Lovell is being told by NASA director Chris Kraft, the director of flight crew operations Deke Slayton, and Flight surgeon Dr. Charles Barry that one of his crew members, Ken Mattingly, may have the measles, and can’t fly the mission. At this point the crew has been training together for several months for this mission, and has established an incredible level of teamwork and cooperation. Jim Lovell at one point says, “You want to break up my crew two days before the launch, when we can predict each other’s moves, when we can read the tone of each others voices.” That is the same level of communication that they have established. It’s not a conversation that they have, it’s just a state of being aware what’s going on, trusting everyone to do what they need to do, and to a level knowing what the others are thinking and going to do next. The irony here is that the crew that did go up on Apollo 13, with backup CM pilot Jack Swigert, was exactly the right crew to safely bring the mission home. Ken Mattingly, back on earth, played a vital roll in working start up procedures for the frozen spacecraft. At the end of the day (well…in this case 6 days) everyone was exactly where they needed to be in order to get everyone home safely.
I recently had an encounter with this phenomenon myself. It usually presents itself when we need it too most, when there is no time for a conversation, when there is an inability to have a conversation. I was recently scuba diving with a group of people I go to school with. We were down in the bottom of spring in Florida and the visibility was less than stellar, it was dark, and there wasn’t really a direct ascent to the surface. Basically, not the best of conditions. I was diving with my best friend, Matt, and there were two other buddy teams that were part of our group that were at the bottom of this spring. A situation developed where one of the other members of our group started panicking at in about 100 feet of dark murky water. This silent wordless communication immediately kicked in between Matt and I. Since we were underwater, a normal talking conversation was impossible, we had to use hand signals. We also relied on each other doing exactly what we knew needed to be done to get everyone up safely. From the time the diver started panicking to the time we were up on the surface, Matt and I exchanged only about 4 hand signals, and yet we each knew exactly what the other one was doing and thinking. I got to the panicking diver first, because I happened to be looking in the direction. About 5-10 (wild guess, I have no idea really) seconds later Matt appeared next to me and all that was required was a one handed thumbs up ascent signal. I knew after that that he would gather the remaining divers in our group and get them all pointed in the right direction, while I focused on getting the now calming diver back home. I knew I only had to worry about that, while my teammate did the other task. It was a level of communication that came from diving together for a year straight, and trusting the other would make the right decisions to get everyone home. There is another idea in here which is that it didn’t matter which one of us got their first, the same decisions would have been made and the same out come would have been reached. It made the whole event much more manageable to safely deal with.
I have always been romantic about the idea of a team that can operate silently, each knowing what the other ones jobs are, as well as what his or her own job is, and that each member will do exactly his or her job, while knowing exactly what all the other team members are doing. It is something that I believe can also be achieved through great friendship and trust. I know it is because I felt it down at the bottom of a spring. It is a level that I think has something to do with a greater power more than anything else. God watches out for us, and during times of stress and times where we are being tested there are things that we do or things that we know that we can’t quite explain. Sure there is training that we follow in emergency situations and things that have been procedurally hardwired into our brains, but I’m talking about the things that we can’t train for. The exact circumstances of an event can never be simulated exactly. There’s always going to be things that we have no clue to expect. Knowing our surroundings and what other operators on the team are doing and thinking and the ‘predicting each others moves’ idea I think is a God thing. He is there for us always, giving us what we need to fight the bad situations that we face. This silent wordless communication is also something that we have with Him. He is there in our lives giving us what we need, what we don’t know we need, and shaping the plan for however it is we are supposed to deliver His word. It is an incredible thing to experience first hand when it matters, when it’s do or die, when we need it most. The state of knowing what is going on with you, but being aware of all the things going on around you.
Of course there is chance in this world. A coin toss. A card deck. Your iTunes library on shuffle. But every so often there are things that we just can’t quite chalk up to pure chance. Why was it that the of two pilots in that airbus one had devoted his flying career toward safety, and the other had completed a training exercise of the very accident that occurred no more than 2 weeks before? Why was it that one of us down in that cavern was looking in the exact right direction at the exact right moment? I can’t tell you with any certainty. I can tell you that I believe that God does play a roll in our every day lives. All of those little decisions that we can’t quite explain. Those feelings that make the hair on the back of your neck stand up. The knowing what someone else is feeling or what someone else needs. Those “gut” feelings that have no actual basis, but we are 100% sure that they are right. It’s in these things and in these decisions and these thoughts and actions that we can find Him, if we look. It’s quite an awesome thing, in every sense of the word. I guess the major theme in this is, sometimes in our lives there are things that we can’t explain. Things that we know happen and we feel and see and experience but can’t quite put a finger on what is actually going on. God is all around us. Everyday. Always. He’s there through the good, the bad, and the ugly. This is something that has been more evident in my life now than ever before. There are a lot of things that I do not know. But I do know this. At the end of the day, when it’s all said and done…you can’t write everything off to chance.