Inside a Hero's Head

Like millions of other Americans who were glued to their televisions Thursday night watching the aftermath of the flight that ditched into the frigid Hudson River, 82-year-old Joan McKown of San Marcos, Calif., got just a bit emotional when it was revealed that there were no serious causalities.

"I was tearing up and was so happy everyone was OK," she said.

Unlike most people, McKown has firsthand experience. Like Capt. Chesley Sullenberger III, the pilot whose actions saved 150 passengers aboard U.S. Airways flight 1549, McKown has experienced being a member of a flight crew during a mid-air disaster. And like Sullenberger, she was able to react in what most would agree was a calm and heroic manner, tending to passengers as her own life was in eminent danger.

Experts aren't sure exactly what causes people to behave heroically under stress. But they have some theories -- one known as "heroic imagination," and another asserting that a well-trained person essentially is able to switch to autopilot in a crisis situation when an untrained person's impulse might be to freeze up.

'This Plane Has Been Blown to Pieces'

McKown was a 22-year-old stewardess for United Airlines when she was tested in a crisis. On a clear August night in 1950, as she was working a nonstop flight from L.A. to Chicago, a faulty propeller ripped off the airplane, causing an engine explosion that sent a propeller slicing through the hull like a can opener.

"It was such an explosion," she recalled. "We just all flew toward that opening."

McKown said she was thrown 20 feet and hit her head. When she regained consciousness, she said, the plane was still in the air -- and she found herself surrounded by debris and frightened passengers with 250 feet of the fuselage's top completely missing.

"I woke up and I thought, 'Oh my God, this airplane has been blown to pieces,'" she said, adding that the flight path over the Colorado Rockies left them few options in terms of an emergency landing. "There was no place to land for 25 minutes."

But despite the horror of the situation -- and the fact that she had sustained a head wound that was streaming blood down her shirt -- McKown soon began going from row to row, checking on passengers.

"It was so loud, there was so much wind, you had to scream in their ears and ask if they're all right," she recalled. "We couldn't hear them if they were [screaming], but I think that was something that kept them calm, because they couldn't hear anybody else yelling either."

The Psychology of a Hero

So what makes a hero respond in a heroic way? Cleveland Clinic psychologist Scott Bea said researchers are still struggling to find an exact answer to that very question.

"It's a poorly studied phenomenon," Bea said. "We probably know much less about being a hero than we'd like to."

But he added it is likely that a concept known as "heroic imagination" lies at the root of certain people's ability to react heroically in a dangerous situation.

"Certain people have actually envisioned themselves in these scenarios and thought about how to act," he said. "Pilots, I can guarantee you, have engaged in this heroic imagination probably more than ordinary citizens. I'm guessing that flight crews have gone through this heroic imagination, as well."

Heroic Imagination or Training?

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