The Unnoticed Miracle of Flight 1549

–On the twelfth anniversary of the miracle on the Hudson, let’s remember this essential secret to our collective survival.

There were three great stories in the averted disaster of US Airways Flight 1549.

First was the story of Divine Providence, which placed a pilot with precisely the right training, experience, and temperament at the helm of the crippled jetliner and placed the only feasible landing strip — the Hudson River — close enough for a safe, if chilly, touchdown.

Second is the story of heroism. The pilot, Chesley Sullenberger, drew upon his experience with both military fighters and gliders to bring the jetliner safely down from the sky. The flight crew quickly and efficiently instructed the passengers to prepare for impact, then shepherded them off the sinking plane. The rescuers, both professional and private citizens, steered their boats to the crash site within minutes. Not one life was lost.


But the third story is perhaps the most noteworthy of all. Though untrained and unprepared, the passengers on Flight 1549, virtually without exception, did exactly what they needed to do to survive.

They followed instructions.

In moments of crisis, bold leaders act decisively, heroes rise to the occasion and show their true colors, and acts of selflessness inspire those of us thousands of miles away who find our faith renewed — both in the Divine hand of mercy and in the quality of our neighbors.

But heroes cannot succeed in a vacuum.

Had the passengers on the stricken plane responded with panic, had they stormed the cockpit in a frenzied attempt to seize the controls, had they ignored the directions of the captain and the flight attendants, had they fought one another to reach the emergency exits first, then this story would have a much less happy ending.

US Airways Flight 1549 was evacuated after landing in the Hudson River in January 2009. Photo: Greg Lam Pak Ng


The sages of the Talmud teach: “In a place where there are no leaders, strive to become a leader.” On the surface, this means precisely what it appears to mean. It is leaders who provide the unity and direction that transform a mob into a community, that impose order upon chaos, that create hope for survival in the face of self-destructive pandemonium.

And what if there is no one to take charge?  Then, every individual must see himself or herself as a potential leader and do all they can to shoulder the responsibilities of leadership.

At the same time, the sages tell us that this principle applies only in a place where there are no leaders. Whenever there is someone qualified and willing to lead, then it becomes the responsibility of others to follow, to become good soldiers and carry out orders. It was the passengers of Flight 1549 who enabled the heroes of the story to perform heroically.

Perhaps the exultation we feel over the survival of Flight 1549 stems from a deeper, often subconscious conviction in the unity of mankind. We can transform ourselves from a divided rabble into a society of leaders and followers, of captains and foot soldiers. We can achieve great things when we come together in a common cause for the common welfare.


Nothing catalyzes us like crisis. When the ship is sinking, when the plane is going down, when the enemy is at the gates, we find ourselves motivated to set aside our egos, to overlook our petty differences, and to stand together for the sake of our own survival.

Perhaps this is the most relevant lesson of Flight 1549. We live in a world less predictable than ever, with terrorism and religious extremism threatening from without and contagion threatening us from within.  We find ourselves questioning the stability of our own governmental system while the economy shifts beneath our feet.  We search in vain for authentic leadership while those around us put their faith in party slogans and demigods.

What better point in time to reflect on our potential to come together in the most desperate moments — as when a hundred thousand tons of steel is falling from the sky, as when human society seems ready to crumble back into the dark ages — and change the outcome, against all odds, from tragedy to triumph.

With common purpose, we can accomplish virtually anything.  All we need to do is commit ourselves to one another and to the core values on which our society was built, as one person, with one heart.

Adapted from an article published 17 January 2009 by


Yonason Goldson
Yonason Goldson
Yonason Goldson works with business leaders to build a culture of ethics, setting higher standards to earn loyalty and trust. He’s a rabbinic scholar, repentant hitchhiker, and co-host of the weekly podcast “The Rabbi and the Shrink.” He has published hundreds of articles applying ancient wisdom to the challenges of the modern world, and six books, most recently “Grappling with the Gray: an ethical handbook for personal success and business prosperity.” The ninja were covert agents in feudal Japan who practiced espionage, deception, and surprise attacks. Doesn't that make Ethics Ninja a contradiction in terms? Not at all. Just as the master of martial arts turns an opponent’s strength against himself, the Ethics Ninja turns attacks against moral values back against the adversaries of ethics, exposing groupthink and double-standards through rational argument in asymmetrical battle to vanquish the enemies of moral clarity.

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  1. Crises of all kinds require to act quickly. Situations of urgency and emergency quickly bring out the issue of leadership and its relationship with follownership.
    In my opinion, there is a key that we can find in the behavior of the leader and followers and that pushes them to that unity of purpose that favors the confrontation with the emergency context.
    This key is the awareness.
    For the leader, a self-awareness that basically concerns the ability to read one’s emotions in order to gain knowledge of one’s inner states, preferences, resources and intuitions. But also social awareness which basically refers to empathy, the ability to live the feelings of others.
    Also in the follownership there is a strong awareness: of its role, of the organizational and social situations in which one finds oneself to operate, of one’s emotional and cognitive abilities, “inside” the given situation.
    Awareness is the basis for building an effective relationship for oneself and to face any actual situetion.

  2. Dear Yonason,

    I do not know why but your inspiration article brought on a touch of emotion. You really do gather everyone together, you reach out to ‘promote’ togetherness. Your words are strong and gentle, offering inspiration and trust.

    Thank you, Yonason for your enlightening and inspiring words. The analogy with Flight 1549 and humanity’s reaction and trust is indeed a powerful lesson in togetherness.

    Simon Lever

  3. Yonason, what a brilliant and heart opening read. And a powerful reminder in your words:”With common purpose, we can accomplish virtually anything. All we need to do is commit ourselves to one another and to the core values on which our society was built, as one person, with one heart”. At our core we truly all have one common purpose. #leadershiplessons

    • I love the term “heart opening,” Carol. We have to burrow through a lot of layer to get to the core of our own hearts. But it’s an effort worth making, one that restores and preserves our humanity.

      Thanks so much for your comment.