“This is not really happening! not to me!” and then “I knew immediately it was very bad” (CBS interview, 2009). These are the first two thoughts that crossed the mind of Captain C.B. Sullenberger aboard a modern Airbus 320 that had just taken off from New York’s La Guardia Airport. The captain had 30 seconds to decide what to do and a minute to do all that was necessary to carry out what seemed an impossible mission: get his aircraft to glide over one of the most densely populated areas on Earth. The result of the decision taken by the captain is known to all.

What is most striking is certainly the speed with which the pilot made his decision, and what is amazing, but really shows the great potential of the human mind, is the incredible analysis of variables performed in those 30 seconds. Intuition? Instinct? For sure these two components were in play because that’s what the human mind relies on when there is no time to think. From an evolutionary point of view intuition is one of the oldest ways that the human psyche works, a mental process that arose before the so-called higher cognitive functions (reasoning, logical thinking, abstraction, analysis, language …), and this sort of “original mind” is kept in our unconscious. “Intuition is a highly ecological response: it provides immediate, effective answers with low cognitive costs” (Maldonado, Dell’Orco, 2010). Let’s try to understand it better.

A classic example is the baseball pitcher: when he is about to throw the ball, his brain has already collected useful clues to predict its behavior in the air; equally, the brain of the player who has to catch it will make the same evaluation, in an automatic, unconscious and instantaneous way, without considering all the variables or the forces at play that are giving the ball a certain trajectory. Quite simply, the brain perceives almost immediately where the ball is going to go without having to waste time in making calculations or in deciding whether to run faster or slower in order to catch it.

From an evolutionary point of view, the techniques of intercepting an object have had a highly adaptive value. Equally, the attack and defense strategies of animals are mainly based on instinct and intuition. Animals use them as the basis of their survival.

Yet intuitive thinking can also be misleading. Always making decisions instinctively can lead to mistakes, but in a high-risk environment or in an emergency situation where there is so little time available, it is one of the options that our mind uses maximizing, beneath the surface of rationality, “the mostly unexplored cognitive unconsciousness, from which our decisions emerge and from which the emotional part of our mind reacts to even the smallest stimulus “(Maldonado, 2010). We could say that intuition is the most primitive form, in the true sense of the word, of the decision-making process.

The psychologist Kohler called this mode of creative problem solving “insight”, a process of cognitive restructuring, a unique awareness of an original relationship among various elements.

Unfortunately, our intuition is not always correct; sometimes there is a huge gap between reality and what we think is the best way to solve a problem. Such terms as “gut feelings”, “instinct “, “hunch” and “just a feeling” are often used to describe the way our intuition influences our actions and decisions, but many fatal accidents caused by stall issues maybe reveal that the crew’s instinct was wrong. What happened in the cockpit of flight AF447? All of us found out the answer when the final report was released; the plane had gone into an aerodynamic stall, for nearly 3 and half minutes, before they crashed into the Ocean; in short, the pilots had done the opposite of what was supposed to be done in case of a stall: push the aircraft’s nose forward and down. Why were they stuck on pulling the nose up when the stall warning system had blared out the word “stall” several times? What we can hypothesize, which is also compatible with the pilots’ survival instinct in such situations is to keep the aircraft facing up towards the safety of the sky instead of facing it down towards the ground (B. Radford-Discovery news). Especially in bad weather, no one wants to fly in a thunderstorm, but the first action, if possible, is to avoid the situation by flying above the storm. When fear and panic take control of our minds, what the brain usually does is to cut off almost all the signals from outside; it restricts the memory and it is no longer able to pay attention to more than one thing at a time. The instruments in front of our eyes give us faulty signals so, in the situation of flight AF447, the stall warning was probably believed to be faulty as well, so the pilots did not even try to process this information. It is believed that, in such a case, even if there is time to think, the “gut feeling” will probably be overruled by a cognitive process; however, if there is no time, it is hard to make a realistic analysis of what is happening. Many stall accidents have occurred with very similar dynamics: (West Caribbean McDonnell Douglas MD-82 that, in 2005, crashed in Venezuela after the crew, reacting to a stall at cruise altitude, “went to full aft controls all the way to the ground.” In 2004, the crew of a Pinnacle Bombardier CRJ-200, near Jefferson City, Missouri, U.S.A., starting from a high cruise altitude, “overrode multiple stick-pusher activations all the way to the ground.” More recently, in the Air New Zealand/XL Airways Airbus A320 accident in France, the aircraft was 57 degrees nose-up at 3,800 ft and 40 kt airspeed — “high power, high pitch, full stall,” (Michael Coker,Flight Safety.org)) and the Buffalo accident as well. It is always said that lack of training, automation, over-reliance on technology are the main causes of this kind of accident, but as said before the cognitive process developed after instinct and so our brain goes THERE when facing immediate danger. Instinct and intuition are not that simple to place in a learning program, and that is what makes them an incredibly creative tool when called upon in a problem-solving situation, but at the same time, they remain an integral part of human fragility.

[ This is an article I wrote in 2014 for my previews aviation blog that I closed in 2016 because of lack of time.] 🙂

Qui l’articolo che scrissi per la rivista Mente & Cervello, Ottobre 2014 su alcune dinamiche psicologiche in volo. e che richiamano in parte questo articolo in inglese che scrissi per un mio vecchio blog che ho chiuso per mancanza di tempo:   Il fattore umano nelle situazioni di emergenza




Maldonato, M., Dell’Orco, S. (2010), Psicologia della decisione. Bruno Mondadori, Roma.

Interview to Cpt. Sullenberger