Ask the pilot

It wasn't heroics that saved the passengers of Flight 1549. It was professionalism -- and luck.

Published January 23, 2009 11:16AM (EST)

The wall-to-wall media coverage of last week's US Airways accident has left me dazed and discouraged. Don't get me wrong, a jetliner going down in a river directly alongside the nation's most important city is by definition a big deal. But did it really deserve to be a multi-day spectacle? (As I type this very paragraph, coincidentally while sitting on a plane, five full days after the crash, the seat-back TV in front of me, set to a popular news channel, is blaring an "urgent" update: "US Airways Jet Is Lifted From River.") In case you need reminding, not one of the 155 passengers and crew was killed.

Imagine for a moment the very same accident, except that the plane hits the water slightly harder. It breaks open and sinks to the bottom, resulting in mass casualties. I have to ask: Would the media blitz have been any different? Frankly, I think it would have been more or less the same. When it comes to airplane mishaps, all too often the volume of coverage has little to do with the magnitude of the event. Some cool visuals (tail sticking out of the water, etc.) have helped give this one a particularly long shelf life.

It can be reasonably argued that the lack of fatalities made the story so compelling. Those on board were extremely fortunate, and indeed their rescue was grounds for headlines and celebration. At the same time, however, we are owed a sober discussion of what actually befell them, instead of the vapid and infantile yammering about miracles and the "heroics" of "the pilot."

With respect to that last one, I fail to understand how after decades of reporting on aviation incidents, the press cannot make it clear that at least two fully qualified pilots -- a captain and first officer -- are in the cockpit of every commercial jet. The captain is in command and ultimately responsible for the plane and its occupants, yes, but the first officer, or "copilot," if we must, is not merely along as a backup or helpful apprentice. Tasks are split 50/50, including all hands-on "flying" duties. A copilot is at the controls for just as many takeoffs and landings as the captain, in both normal and abnormal operations, including many emergencies. (The Associated Press is habitually the worst offender in this regard.)

Following the US Airways crash there has been an outpouring of appreciation for Capt. Chesley Sullenberger. The first officer, Jeffrey Skiles, has gone mostly unmentioned (a nod here to Alan Levin at USA Today, for giving Skiles his due). Sullenberger took over the aircraft from Skiles, who was flying at the moment of the bird strike, but skill was not the issue. Rather, with both engines out, by design, the flight instruments on the first officer's side would have failed. For all intents and purposes, Sullenberger had to take over. But regardless of whose hands were on the controls, both pilots, together, faced a serious emergency, and both needed to rise to the occasion.

And they did. It's impossible to know exactly what went on, but presumably it went something like this: The first step, once the pilots realized they weren't dreaming, would have been to run through the immediate action checklist items -- a memorized set of steps intended to get at least one of the engines started again. With neither of them running, the jet was severely crippled, down to a few standby instruments and backup electrical power. A ram-air turbine would have automatically deployed, providing limited hydraulic power and allowing the crew to maintain basic pitch and roll control. If it wasn't already operating, either Sullenberger or Skiles would likely have switched on the auxiliary power unit, a small jet turbine that is able to supply additional electrical and pneumatic power, but which takes a couple of minutes to get going.

Sullenberger would adjust the plane's pitch to maintain the optimal glide speed, and Skiles would begin running through the full checklist for a dual engine failure -- assuming there was time. With all of this happening only a few thousand feet above the ground, determining a place to land was urgent, to say the least. It was apparent within seconds that a return to LaGuardia was impossible, as was continuing westward toward Teterboro airport in New Jersey. The choice was either a crash landing in the middle of one of the most built-up cities in the world, or a ditching in the ice-cold Hudson River. The latter was hardly ideal, but it was clearly the better option and would have to do.

For the water landing itself, there would've been a rather elaborate checklist, but whether enough time remained to go through it is another story. I'd guess that Skiles completed at least a portion of it, and would also have been communicating with the cabin crew. What we know for sure is that Sullenberger slowed to minimum speed, kept the wings level, held the pitch just right, and glided the A320 gently into the water. Had the wings been cocked, and/or the impact too hard, the plane easily could have flipped, rolled, inverted or otherwise broken up, with certain loss of life.

Well done.

But just the same, I'm rather uneasy at calling them heroes. Nothing they did was easy, but on the whole they did what they had to do, what they were trained to do, and what, we should hope, most other crews would have done in that same situation. I reckon Sullenberger and Skiles would readily admit as much. Not out of false modesty but out of due respect for their colleagues everywhere. It was not heroics that saved the day; it was, to use a word I normally dislike, professionalism.

And nowhere in the public discussion has the role of luck been adequately acknowledged.

Flight 1549 was stricken in daylight and in reasonably good weather that allowed the crew to visually choose a landing spot. Had it happened on a day with little visibility, or over a crowded part of the city beyond gliding distance to the Hudson, the result probably would have been a catastrophe. No amount of skill would have mattered. (I fly across the Atlantic three or four times a month, and the thought of having to ditch in the open ocean, amid icy 30-foot swells hundreds of miles from land, is almost too horrific to contemplate.)

Yet, even in that worst-case disaster, I'm pretty sure the crew would have reacted more or less exactly as it did last Thursday. To survive the failure of both engines, they needed to be good. But they needed to be lucky too.

They were both.

This is not, for a second, to suggest that Sullenberger and Skiles don't deserve the highest praise. The flight attendants as well, by all accounts, reacted admirably. A multiple engine failure and subsequent crash landing is a dire emergency even in the most ideal of conditions. I am not slighting the crew. I am slighting the media for sensationalizing and distorting the truth.

For the record, US Airways 1549 was one of only a handful of intentional "water landings" involving a commercial airliner in the modern era.

  • In 1963, an Aeroflot jet splash-landed in the Neva River outside Leningrad. Everybody on board survived.
  • In 1970, in what was probably our closest thing yet to a Hollywood-style ocean ditching, an Overseas National Airways (ONA) DC-9 bound from New York to St. Croix ditched in the Caribbean after running out of fuel. Twenty-three people were killed, and 40 were rescued.
  • In 1996, an Ethiopian Airlines 767 went down off the Comoros Islands after running out of fuel during a hijacking. Video taken by tourists at a nearby beach shows the plane slamming into the water and cartwheeling into pieces. At the moment of impact, the pilots and hijackers had been wrestling for control.
  • Three years ago, a Tunisian ATR-42 turboprop crashed into the Mediterranean off the coast of Sicily, taking the lives of 16 of the 39 people aboard.
  • In 1977, a hijacked Boeing 747 owned by the Stevens Corp. plunged into the Bermuda Triangle and quickly sank. Miraculously, the cabin remained intact, leaving the occupants trapped alive at the bottom of the ocean. They were later rescued through the ingenious use of giant flotation balloons.

Oh, wait, that last one was the movie "Airport '77."

The others, though, were real, and that list doesn't count various runway overrun incidents in which planes ended up in water, including two US Air tragedies at LaGuardia, and the 1982 World Airways crash in Boston, in which two passengers disappeared into the harbor and were never found. One moral being that even if your plane is coast-to-coast, over land the whole way, don't discount the value of your flotation devices.


If, by the way, you are in such an accident and have, as will almost certainly be the case, failed to pay attention to the pre-takeoff safety demo, remember not to inflate your vest while you're still inside the plane, despite the temptation to do so. When that Ethiopian jet ditched off the Comoros, several people who'd pre-inflated their vests were killed, unable to move freely and escape the rising water.

In 2002, in a discussion of "the realities of air safety," the Economist, normally among the most factually credible magazines in the world, quoted a Mr. Jackson of Jane's All the World's Aircraft, who stated: "No large airliner has ever made an emergency landing on water." Although the definitions of "large" or "landing" are contestable, that is totally untrue.

The magazine continued, "So the life jackets, with their little whistles and lights that come on when in contact with water, have little purpose other than to make passengers feel better." The various accouterments of the on-board flotation devices are indeed a bit excessive (the larger rafts contain everything from signal mirrors to, yes, fishing line and hooks), but more than once those vests and rafts have been put to good use by people who needed them.

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Do you have questions for Salon's aviation expert? Contact Patrick Smith through his Web site and look for answers in a future column.

By Patrick Smith

Patrick Smith is an airline pilot.

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