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How Pilots Think in the Blink of an Eye

Last updated on May 25, 2020

I just completed listening to the audio-bookBlink” by Malcolm Gladwell and started listening to “How Doctors Think” by Jerome Groopman (review coming soon). I have been reflecting on what both these highly insightful authors have to say about how our mind works during a crisis.

Critical Thinking In a Crisis
Gladwell says that a well-trained mind gets highly focused in a moment of crisis and “everything seems to slow down” and time seems to move in milliseconds. All the knowledge and the “super processing” power of the subconscious makes us very aware of what is happening around us, and guides us to do the right thing at the critical moment. I have just started Groopman’s book, but based on what I have listened to so far, he talks about how an experienced doctor’s mind does “pattern recognition” from all of the patient’s signs and symptoms in an emergency, knowing exactly what needs to be done. For the last couple of days, I have been thinking about some of the very interesting examples and tests described in these books. And, what I saw in last evening’s TV news coverage seems to fit everything that these two authors write about….

Phenomenal Landing
Earlier yesterday, US Airways Flight 1549, an Airbus A320 bound for Charlotte, N.C.,  struck a flock of birds, forcing the pilot to ditch the plane into Hudson river, saving the lives of all 155 people on board. There was good coverage on CNN News and Larry King Live. Some of the survivors and rescue personnel were praising the phenomenal act of the pilot,  Chesley B. “Sully” Sullenberger III, to bring the plane down to the water under full control and minimal impact and damage. Dr. Sanjay Gupta, CNN’s Chief Medical Correspondent, said on Larry King Live that “the pilot went into a ‘technical mode’ and did a precise job of landing the plane on water, saving all the lives.” Dr. Phil, on the same show, said that the pilot was “more than a hero” and had demonstrated what a well-trained, capable and calm professional he was.

Blink of an Eye Decisions
When the pilot realized that the plane had struck birds and both engines were failing, he made a quick assessment and with the help of the air traffic controller decided to land the plane in the nearby Teterboro airport. Moments later, it became apparent that the plane was losing altitude much faster that he thought and that it would risky to try and go that far. Instead, he decided to land the plane on the Hudson river that he was flying over. In the “blink of an eye” he had considered many possibilities, computed the pros and cons of all of them, weighed the risks, and had calmly taken the best course of action. His trained mind and body had stood by him and guided him to complete a heroic act with which he safely landed everyone on board, and did not cause any external damage either.

What I watched on TV last evening seemed to be taken right out of “Blink” and “How Doctors Think.”

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One Comment

  1. […] This is Malcolm Gladwell’s second book after “The Tipping Point.”  In The Tipping Point, Gladwell writes about how sometimes things considered little and insignificant thinks can unexpectedly cause big changes. Blink is about something very different; it is about how much information processing is done by our mind at a subconscious level, and how it can give us incredible answers in the blink of an eye. […]

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