Aviation’s safety culture can translate to health professions

It started as a routine takeoff for US Airways Flight 1549.

But everything changed so fast.

Just after takeoff, Capt. Jeff Skiles, the plane’s co-pilot, caught a glimpse of movement and looked up.

“It was a big flock of geese, too close to maneuver around,” he said Friday, at the grand opening ceremonies for the USF Health Center for Advanced Medical Learning and Simulation.

In an instant, birds were hitting the plane, and some were sucked into the engines.

Skiles just had time to think aboutstarting to assess the damage when the engines went quiet. All he heard was the sound of the wind.

“The shock of the situation made me feel as if my head had swollen,” he said. “I saw the world through a fog.”

But Skiles’ next actions had nothing to do with fog – and everything to do with training.

Captain Jeff Skiles, US Airways

Capt. Jeffrey Skiles, the co-pilot of US Airways Flight 1549 "Miracle on the Hudson," was a featured speaker at the opening of the USF Health Center for Advanced Medical Learning and Simulation.

Capt. Skiles grabbed his emergency procedures manual and flipped to the page for dual engine failure. Skiles began stepping through emergency procedures as his pilot, Capt. Chesley Sullenberger, took over flying the plane.

What happened is history. The pair landed the plane safely in the river. Every passenger on the plane survived. They became “the Miracle on the Hudson.”

But Capt. Skiles shrugs off such descriptions.

“Many people want to call me a hero or credit a miracle,” he said. “But this is not a story of individual achievement. This is a story of organizational change and safety awareness.”

And this is why Capt. Skiles was at CAMLS the day that it opened.

“We think that we can learn a lot from him,” said Dr. Stephen Klasko, dean of the USF Health Morsani College of Medicine. “Pilots know that practice and teamwork pay off in a crisis.”

CAMLS will collaborate with aviation safety experts to apply their lessons to the medical field, Dr. Klasko said. Those lessons include heavy use of simulators as learning tools and a focus on finding common errors and teaching how they can be corrected rather than blaming individuals for errors.

Skiles thinks CAMLS can teach those same lessons to health professionals.

“This is going to be an extremely valuable institution for the medical community,” he said.

“I’m here because of all the decades of developments in safety systems that allowed Sully and I to be successful in our moment of crisis,” Skiles said.

The Miracle on the Hudson is all about simulation and training and procedures that prepare pilots to handle the worst.

“Even in a moment of extreme stress and confusion, the training of decades came to the surface and we knew what to do,” Skiles said. “It was an event that we had practiced and prepared for our entire lives.”

The ultimate proof of that preparation:  Skiles and Sullenberger saved lives by working as a smoothly functioning team.

Even though they had just met that morning.

Capt. Jeffrey Skiles, US Airways,  Lisa Greene

Capt. Skiles flips through his aviation emergency procedures manual while being interviewed by Lisa Greene of USF Health Communications.