US Air 1549 and the relevance of checklists

Constant readers, when we discussed the importance of surgical checklists last week, I mentioned parenthetically that I am a licensed pilot. (For av geeks: single engine, taildragger, VFR. And, just to complete the geekery, married to an avionics engineer.) So I’ve been particularly fascinated by the story and back-story of US Air flight 1549, which — as I am sure most of you know — bellied into the Hudson last week after losing both its engines to bird ingestion and landed beautifully, with no injuries to its passengers or crew.

The landing is being called a miracle, but to a pilot, it’s no miracle: It’s a testament to excellent performance under pressure by pilot-in-command Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger III and his first officer and crew. How did they perform so well? They ran down a checklist. Why did they reach for the checklist immediately, almost instinctively, and perform so well as a group? Because they trained many, many, many times to do exactly that.

Last week’s New England Journal of Medicine article made clear the value of checklists to medicine. But patient-safety analyst Bob Wachter asks an additional vital question: Even when medicine has such measures, how often do we train to implement them? The answer, he finds, is not often:

We need to continue to work, as aviation has for the past generation, to train our “pilots” to become Sullys. Because we in healthcare are flying over some pretty cold rivers, each and every day.

(Hat tip to for calling attention to Wachter’s post.)


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