In case you were wondering, about that airplane in the Hudson

Yes, it is right to view the pilot, CB Sullenberger, as a hero for the mental composure and technical skill he showed after he (reportedly) lost power in both engines.* Plus to celebrate the combination of luck and teamwork by aircrew and rescuers that allowed everyone aboard to get out of the airplane alive.

During my days of amateur piloting, I was always amazed by the rigor and discipline of professional airline crews. Every two years, those of us in the amateur business were required to go through Biennial Flight Reviews in which you'd fly with an instructor who would simulate various problems to see how you'd react. ("OK, you've just lost power, tell me where you're going to land." Or, when you're ten feet above the ground preparing to land, "A deer just stepped onto the runway - GO AROUND [abort the landing] now!") Many amateur fliers choose to get, or are required by insurance companies to get, "recurrent training" every six or twelve months.

But airline crews are drilled and tested and measured again and again and again, without letup, throughout their working careers. In their full-motion simulators, they're trained to respond to every disaster, and combination of disasters, that might possibly befall an airliner. Loss of power just as the airplane is taking off. Engine fire at low altitude. (Contrary to general assumption, problems at low altitudes are usually more dangerous than ones high altitude,  since you have less time to deal with them before the airplane hits the ground.) Hydraulic failure along with the fire. Plus, being in the middle of a thunderstorm. And so on.

Some professional pilots are "smart" in the normal sense; some are not. Some are likable and admirable; some are bores or boors. But all of them are made to develop and maintain reflex-like responses to these emergencies. They are also forced to think through the decisions they would make if faced by disasters they will probably never encounter through their whole flying careers.

Why is riding a commercial airliner in the US statistically about the safest way you can spend your time? Partly it's because of the advanced, powerful, and multiply-redundant nature of the machinery, and because of the regulatory standards to which it's held. But the airlines' extraordinarily safe record also says something about the skill, responsibility, and judgment of (most) people flying the craft. As it happens, nearly all flights are routine, and it becomes tempting to think of their crews as glorified bus drivers. But they're conditioned to think, at every stage of every flight, What would I do if XXX went wrong, right now?

And birds? Birds are a much more serious worry for people flying airplanes than you would think, no matter the size of the plane. Obviously it's bad for the bird when it hits a hard metal or composite structure at hundreds of miles an hour. But it's surprisingly bad for the plane too. This detail in a recent NYT story rang true to me: "The impact of a 12 pound bird hitting a plane traveling at 150 miles per hour is equal to that of a 1,000 pound weight dropped from a height of 10 feet, according to experts on bird strikes."

Coastal airports are often near water; most airports are surrounded by a lot of grass; the combination means that flocks of birds often assemble where they can do themselves and the airplanes real harm. At an airport in Maryland I once aborted a takeoff in a small propeller plane -- the only time I've had to do so -- because, out of nowhere, dozens of Canada geese suddenly appeared in front of me. It's all too common, when approaching airports near water, to have to concentrate on flocks of seagulls (or crows, even away from water) in hopes that they will, by the very last instant, get out of the way and allow you to land.

And ditching in water? This is something that very few amateur or professional pilots have ever practiced for real.

To deal with an extremely serious problem -- failure of both engines, at least as now reported; to consider various options (on to Teterboro? back to LGA? what about the water?) while the plane is inevitably descending and each passing second narrows your choices; to decide on and commit to a course of action; and then to carry it out flawlessly .. all this deserves admiration, study, and thanks. So, yes, he's a hero. And one of several who emerged that day.


* And not to react in the somewhat grudging spirit of an initial report on the NYT site:

In a few weeks, a close comparison of radar tapes and cockpit audiotapes will establish where the plane was when that clipped, urgent conversation took place, and other investigators will try to figure out why this one plane, flying through some of the world's most congested airspace, was the only one to report a bird problem. [Perhaps because it was the only one that was hit???] The twin-engine plane is supposed to be able to fly on one engine.  But from early indications, it appears the pilot handled the emergency river landing with aplomb and avoided major injuries.

This story also said, as an aside, "Airliners are not meant to glide, although occasionally they have to." In fact, every airplane is designed to be able to glide, and controlling them in a glide, without power, is something that everyone routinely practices (as part of an "engine-out" drill.) 

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.


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