Ask the pilot

There's more than one way to define "hero."

By Patrick Smith

Published January 30, 2009 11:40AM (EST)

As last week's letters section would have it, Patrick Smith is the consummate cynic -- a "compulsive contrarian," a "curmudgeon," a "sourpuss," a "wet blanket," a "buzz kill."

Which strikes me as strange, because, honestly, I'm not half the insufferable downer I sometimes come across as. Not all the time, at least. But I have to say, writing about air travel, especially after the mass media gets hold of an issue, has a way of drawing out one's inner crank.

The cartoonist Berkeley Breathed, who had a gig here at Salon for a while, once gave me some advice. "You don't actually read the feedback section, do you?" he asked me. "You should never do that." That's good counsel, probably, which to this point I've been loath to follow. I can't help it: I read them all. Indulging your detractors can be dangerous. It can undermine your principles and trick you into trying to make every reader happy -- which is both impossible and, from a writer's point of view, undesirable.

However, an even greater danger is making nobody happy. Last week's column, about the ditching of Flight 1549, bothered more than a fair share of you.

I was surprised. I felt that I'd done a pretty good job -- fair and balanced, if you will. I made it explicitly clear, I thought, that I was not in any way diminishing the accomplishments of US Airways crew members Chesley Sullenberger and Jeffrey Skiles during their power-off glide into the Hudson River on Jan. 15.

My gripe was with the media -- for its refusal to acknowledge the existence of first officer Skiles, for its "O, the humanity" histrionics, and for its gratuitous use of the words "miracle" and "hero." On the whole, news coverage served to trivialize the event rather than shed useful light on what actually happened. And at a time when the media has become unbearably superficial, is it so wrong to hold it accountable? Perhaps we need more cranks, not fewer. For what it's worth, although lay readers tended to disagree with me, I also received several letters from airline pilots, unanimously thanking me for the piece. (I have, many times in this column, detailed the challenges of flying planes for a living, from the often lousy pay to the stresses of simulator training. I've done a good job, I think, of presenting this odd profession with respect, dignity and a degree of insight you aren't going to get anywhere else. Call it a conflict of interest, but I have spent thousands of words sticking up for pilots and the business of flying planes.)

To some extent, my complaint was a semantic one. There's little harm in celebrating the unlikely survival of 155 people, and we needn't quibble over the wording. But terms like "hero" and "miracle" shouldn't be thrown around lightly.

A miracle describes an outcome that cannot be rationally explained. Everything that happened on Jan. 15 can be rationally explained. That nobody was killed is due to four factors. They are, in descending order (pardon the pun): luck, professionalism, skill and technology.

A hero, to me, describes a person who accepts a great personal sacrifice, up to and including injury or death, for the benefit of somebody else. I never suggested that pilots were merely "doing their job," as several letter writers accused me of suggesting. It was considerably more than that, and nothing about it was easy. But I didn't see heroics; I saw an outstanding execution of difficult tasks in the throes of a serious emergency.

I can't help thinking about Al Haynes, the United Airlines captain who, ably assisted by three other pilots, deftly guided his crippled DC-10 to a crash landing in Sioux City, Iowa, in 1989. A disintegrated engine fan had bled out all three of the plane's hydraulics systems, resulting in a total loss of flight controls. Using differential engine power to perform turns, all the while battling uncontrollable pitch oscillations, Haynes and his crew were able to pull off a semi-survivable landing (112 people were killed; 184 survived), which is about as close to a miracle as you can get. But in his many interviews and speeches since then, Haynes has always bristled at the "hero" label.

(Soundtrack for this column: "Nobody's Heroes," one of the brashest records of the 1980s, from the long-forgotten Belfast rockers Stiff Little Fingers.)

And there's a long-standing unfairness to the whole pilots-as-heroes thing that really gets under my skin. Over the years there have been countless aviators who, confronted by sudden and unusual danger, performed admirably, with just as much skill and resolve as we can ever hope for. But they weren't as lucky. By virtue of luck and nothing more, they and many of their passengers perished. And for this they are denied the kind of acclaim we lavish upon the more telegenic survivor.

And if we're going to praise men like Sullenberger, who indeed saved the day, what about others who did the same? There are many out there. Chances are you've never heard of them, mostly because their planes didn't come splashing down alongside the world's media capital.

I give you Capt. Brian Witcher and his crew aboard United Flight 854, a 767 flying from Buenos Aires, Argentina, to Miami in April 2004. They never made the news cycle, but what they had to deal with was almost unthinkable: a complete electrical failure over the Andes at 3 o'clock in the morning. Under darkness, with their cockpit instruments dead or dying fast, including all radios and navigational equipment, they managed a successful emergency landing in mountain-ringed Bogotá, Colombia.

Or consider the predicament facing American Eagle Capt. Barry Gottshall and first officer Wesley Greene three months earlier. Moments after takeoff from Bangor, Maine, their Embraer regional jet suffered a freak system failure resulting in full and irreversible deflection of the plane's rudder. Struggling to maintain control, they returned to Bangor under deteriorating weather (is there any other kind at BGR?). Visibility had fallen to a mile, and as the 37-seater approached the threshold, Gottshall had to maintain full aileron deflection -- that is, the control wheel turned to the stops and held there -- to keep from yawing into the woods.

Me, I'll take a daylight ditching in the Hudson over either of those. If you need a couple of heroes, take Gotshall and Greene, whose emergency must have been incredibly harrowing. Theirs was pure seat-of-the-pants improv. A fully deflected rudder? There are no checklists, and no procedures, for that one.

In case you're wondering, starting first officer pay at American Eagle is about $21,000 per year. Sullenberger and Skiles each has greater than 20 years' tenure at US Airways. Their salaries are around $105,000 and $71,000, respectively. There are no raises for heroics, be they real or perceived.

I don't know. Maybe you're right. Maybe I'm being too grouchy. And after all, my own definition of "hero" isn't the only one.

Growing up, I was infatuated with the work of several people -- the wit and wisdom of Kurt Vonnegut, for example. The humor of Spalding Gray and the songwriting of Bob Mould and Grant Hart. As for pilots, the person I looked up to the most was Bob Bragg, the surviving first officer of the 1977 disaster at Tenerife, in the Canary Islands, when two 747s collided on a foggy runway in what remains history's worst-ever plane crash. An odd choice, I admit. Why not, say, Chuck Yeager or Ernest K. Gann? Bragg may have been an excellent pilot, but at Tenerife he was merely a survivor, powerless to control an outcome in which 583 people died. But because the accident was so historically important, so dramatic and steeped in such mystique, I came to idolize him. When, a couple of years ago, I met and spent an afternoon with Bob Bragg, I felt like a 9-year-old kid meeting his favorite ballplayer.

The idea being that heroes can be a personal, even a contextual, thing. Really, it's just a word, and so how about we end this discussion before it becomes even more of a pedantic morass?

Your points were well taken, and I guess I'm OK with your hero Sullenberger.

- - - - - - - - - - - -

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

Patrick Smith

Patrick Smith is an airline pilot.

MORE FROM Patrick SmithLIKE Patrick Smith

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Air Travel Ask The Pilot Business