The Art of Fire

Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger, pilot

The wife of the pilot who made the incredible “landing” in the Hudson River yesterday was interviewed on TV. She of course is stunned and proud of her husband, Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger, as many of us are. It must take a massive amount of training, skill, and experience to safely glide a powerless airliner down to a safe landing into a river adjacent to New York City. And of course all of the passengers and crew evacuated safely while the huge airplane floated slowly down the Hudson River. Just freaking amazing.

In the interview, Mr. Sullenberger’s wife said:

“He is a pilot’s pilot, and he loves the art of the airplane.”

He is indeed an experienced pilot, having flown F-4’s for the Air Force. He is graduate of the Air Force academy, a flight instructor, a licensed glider pilot, a consultant in risk management, and has investigated several aircraft accidents for the Air Force and the NTSB.

He also was instrumental in the development of the guidelines for Cockpit (or Crew) Resource Management (CRM), training that has been used extensively by the airlines. CRM has been adopted by the fire service and is used in our wildland fire leadership courses.

I was intrigued by the “Art of the airplane” comment. I am not a pilot, but can imagine that many high-risk occupations, including pilots and firefighters, require not only formal training and years of experience to be successful at a high-performance level, but these occupations also require something more. Call it common sense, plus the ability to be situationally aware throughout your career and absorb knowledge as situations unfold before you.

I have known people who were otherwise “smart”, but did not have the ability to turn an otherwise insignificant event into a learning opportunity. Those who can wring knowledge out of experience, and develop “slides” upon which they can draw as needed later, become artists in their field. They love the “art of the airplane” or the “art of fire”.

The behavior of fire is based on the laws of physics. It is not a “dragon” as some say, but a natural process that can be predicted. Some people are better than others at predicting what a fire will do. When confronted with a fire situation, we don’t have time to pull out a computer and run fire behavior models. The fire artist does it in his head in seconds, matching the situation in front of him with the slides filed away in his memory bank saved from previous, similar experiences.

An example that comes to mind is igniting a prescribed fire. Anyone can carry around an ignition device and set vegetation on fire. But it is a joy to watch an artist with a drip torch. There are dozens of factors to consider when you have the responsibility of setting the woods on fire, but you can’t really think about them all at the same time. It requires skill, knowledge, and matching what you see in front of you with your slides.

The drip torch artist, practicing the Art of Fire, can confidently ignite the vegetation knowing that the result will match one of those slides, not only seconds and minutes later, but even years later as the long range objectives are considered.

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