(Associated Press photo)
By Mark W. Danielson
I normally don’t comment on current events, but since this deals with my profession, I’ll make an exception. Simply put, Captain Chelsey “Sully” Sullenberger’s outstanding handling US Airways Flight 1549 on January 15, 2009, makes him the greatest airline pilot since Captain Al Haynes, who landed his severely damaged DC-10 in Sioux City on July 19, 1989. In both incidents, these pilots’ superior headwork and flying skills saved hundreds of lives. In neither case were they trained to handle such intricate emergencies.
Captain Sullenberger, his crew, and the rescuers who raced to their aid all deserve accolades, but this story’s happy ending was also due to having perfect conditions for this water landing. True, the outside air temperature was in the low twenties, but the water temperature was approximately forty-two degrees, and landing with the current helped decrease the aircraft's relative touchdown speed. Being daytime and with good visibility, the Hudson River was the perfect landing spot because it minimized passenger injuries and eliminated the catastrophic loss of life that this highly-populated urban area had experienced from a prior accident. Of course, the real miracle is that this Airbus 320 not only remained intact, but floated level, allowing its passengers to stand on its wings while awaiting their rescue. The fact that so many rescue boats were available to provide instant response prevented loss of life from hypothermia.
I happened to be flying an MD-11 into Newark when the US Airways accident occurred. The first I heard of it was when my jump-seater’s husband reported the event to her after we landed. I heard no further details until arriving at my hotel, and was amazed that this large Airbus with its under-wing engines remained intact as it did. For this I give partial credit to the aircraft’s design, but mostly to Captain Sullenberger’s skillful flying.
During my forty-three years of flying, I have experienced a total of seven engine failures. The five I had in multi-engine aircraft were no problem, but the two in light single-engine aircraft got my attention. Since both occurred at five hundred feet, I was fortunate to have landed without incident. Thankfully, airplanes still fly when engines fail.
Complete engine failures are extremely rare, even in the case of bird ingestion. Still, it happens. Modern simulators with full motion and video provide extremely realistic training; so much so that “birds” sometimes appear in your windscreen just prior to your losing an engine. This kind of training makes handling most emergencies second nature, but there are times when you must improvise, as Captain Sullenberger did.
Flying remains the safest form of transportation, but every passenger must always be prepared to evacuate. While two years has passed since anyone has died in a commercial airliner, two airline accidents in the last thirty days forced hundreds from their aircraft. Imagine fleeing from a burning aircraft into the snow, as the passengers of the Continental Airlines 737 did in Denver on December 20th, or evacuating a plane in the water as these US Airways passengers did on January 15. In both cases, the crews and passengers should be commended for their prompt, calm actions.
Now for my safety pitch.
First: Believe that your aircraft may become involved in an accident. Doing so will better mentally prepare you, should this actually occur.
Second: When you take your seat, note your escape routes. Identifying some good reference points will aid in your evacuation, should your airplane be filled with smoke and/or come to rest upside down.
Third: Keep your coat and shoes on for takeoff and landing. Doing so will provide protection in the unlikely event you must evacuate.
Fourth: Never inflate your life vest inside an airplane because it can prevent your exit, should water fill the cabin.
Airline pilots receive constant training and evaluation. Twice a year, they return to their simulators to practice handling emergencies, and once a year, a FAA evaluator rides aboard two sequential flights to observe their performance. A pilot who has earned an Airline Transport Pilot rating in a commercial aircraft has received the equivalent of a doctorate in aviation. Every airline pilot’s first priority is safety, and while simulator training cannot cover every emergency situation, it does an excellent job of preparing for worst-case scenarios. So, the next time you fly, take a moment to thank the pilots and flight attendants for their expertise in delivering you safely to your destination.