There’s A Word for That: Sangfroid

alex atkins bookshelf wordsIt’s not a word you hear frequently, although if you saw the recent James Bond movie, No Time To Die, you saw many instances of it. When you first hear it, it sounds like a fancy French dish. If the word is mispronounced (eg, “sang freud”), you might perceive it as an abbreviated form of schadenfreude (that wonderful German word that means deriving pleasure from someone else’s misfortune). To pronounce sangfroid properly, think French — not German: “sahn FRWA or “sang FRWA.” Regardless of how you pronounce it, James Bond, for example, has plenty of it. The word means composure, presence of mind, or calmness in the face of danger of difficult circumstances. Let’s use it in a sentence: James Bond battled his wicked nemesis, employing his customary quick wit and sangfroid. The word is derived from the French word sang, from the Latin sanguis, meaning “blood” and the French word froid, from the Latin frigidus, meaning “cold.” Thus, translated literally, sangfroid means “cold blood.” This is the same concept behind the common idiom “ice water in one’s veins.” A variation of this skips the water altogether: “ice in one’s veins.” That has got to be painful!

Another quintessential example of sangfroid is found in the well-known story of the Miracle on the Hudson. On January 15, 2009, US Airways Flight 1548, traveling from LaGuardia Airport in New York City to Charlotte, North Carolina collided with a flock of Canadian geese within three minutes of the flight. Although a typical plane engine can survive a bird strike, they are not designed to ingest birds that way up to 14 pounds each. Within seconds both engines exploded, immediately losing thrust — placing the crew and 155 passengers in peril. Captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger and his copilot, Jeffrey Skiles, had little time to deal with the crises at an altitude of about 2,800 feet. Within seconds, Captain Sully had to evaluate a nightmare scenario: duel engine failure, low altitude over a densely populated area, slowing air speed, leaking fuel. Captain Sully immediately contacts the tower to alert them of an emergency situation: “Mayday mayday mayday. Uh this is uh Cactus 1539 hit birds, we’ve lost thrust (in/on) both engines we’re turning back towards LaGuardia.” Within seconds, he instructs his copilot to re-establish thrust from the engines (unsuccessful) and turn on the APU (the auxiliary power unit that powers the airplane). Moments later, the tower controllers from LaGuardia and nearby Tererboro (NJ) airport provide Captain Sully with runways as options. Employing complete sangfroid, Captain Sully has considered all the options and made all the calculations and there is only one option that can save the crew and passengers. His succinct response to the tower, which spoke volumes, has been immortalized in print and film for the ages: “We’re unable. We may end up in the Hudson.” He is offered another runway, and again he responds tersely: “Unable.” About a minute later, amid the cacophony of automated warnings from the plane’s cockpit computer, Captain Sully leveled the plane perfectly (if one engine had hit the water earlier than the other, it could have caused the plane to pivot and break up in pieces) and landed in the icy waters of the Hudson River. All members and passengers survived and were rescued, within minutes, by nearby ferries. A year later, the National Transportation Safety Board concluded that the main reason that a crash was averted was due to excellent decision-making (utilizing the 4-step recognition-primed decision making process which relies on experience, intuition, and best practices) and teamwork by the cockpit crew. So if you ever forget the meaning of sangfroid, simply think of Captain Sully and the extraordinary sangfroid it took to deliver the Miracle on the Hudson.

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