The Paradox of Success

Learn from the mistakes of others. You can’t live long enough to make them all yourself.
— Eleanor Roosevelt

Did you know:

  • James Dyson built 5127 prototypes before succeeding with what we now know as the cyclone vacuum. On average, just 100 prototypes were built by other manufacturers
  • David Beckham could do 50 ‘keepy-uppies’ at age 6; by age 9 he could do 2003
  • Michael Jordan famously told how he missed more than 900 shots in his career

On 15 January 2009, US Airways Flight 1549 was given clearance to take off from runway 4 of New York’s La Guardia Airport. It was a clear afternoon and up in the cockpit, Captain Sullenberger and his First Officer Jeffrey Skiles ran through checklists as normal. What neither of them was aware of is that they were about to embark on one of the most celebrated commercial flights of modern times. Less than 2 minutes after take-off, a flock of Canada geese suddenly loomed in view to the right of the plane. The speed of the approach was so fast that the pilots had no chance of taking evasive action. Two birds flew into the right engine and at least one more into the left.

After a series of loud thuds, the plane seemed to come to a halt, followed by a deathly silence. The engines had lost their power. The pilots felt their pulses racing, their perception narrowing: classic responses to danger. They were now 3000 feet above New Yoke in a 70-tonne Airbus A320 with no power. They had to make a series of split second decisions. They were offered a return to La Guardia but rejected it as the plan would not glide that far. At 3.30pm, 4 minutes after take-off, Sullenberger uttered the words that would create headlines around the world: ‘We’re going to be in the Hudson.’ Sullenberger managed to land all 70 tonnes of the plane in the Hudson River. It was a brilliant manouevre. The captain managed the aftermath superbly too. Before he left, he walked the plane twice, ensuring that all passengers had exited on to the wings that were lying inches above the water. There were no fatal injuries.

Captain Sullenberger’s coolness mesmerised America. He even featured in Time magazine’s listing of top heroes of all time.

Aviation experts took a slightly different view. They considered the system in which he and other pilots operate. For example, the fly-by-wire technology installed in Sullenberger’s plane, which is a sophisticated autopilot system, corrected the tilt of the plane inches from contact with the water. This technology was installed following the learning from a series of fatal crashes in the 1930s.

The Paradox of Success is that it is built on failure.


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