Hudson River Crash

January 19th, 2009

The crash of US Airways 1549 into the Hudson River in New York City a few days ago makes an important point.  Despite what people may think, ditching an aircraft of any kind in water is extremely difficult and dangerous.  For large aircraft, like an airliner, it’s almost impossible to ditch without the aircraft breaking up and people dying.  The fact that this aircraft remained intact and floated, permitting everyone aboard to escape with only a few minor injuries, is due to the professional skill of Captain Chesley B. Sullenberger III, an Air Force Academy graduate, former fighter pilot, and experienced airline pilot. 

Airline passengers normally don’t spend much time thinking about the men or women sitting in the front two seats of the airplane.  As a former professional pilot (military, not airlines), I think about them every time I get on a commercial flight.

The fact is, the captain and first officer who fly the airplane are just people.  It’s true that the cockpit of an airliner is one of the few workplaces that for the most part have not been affected by the unrelenting pressure to put social engineering constructs ahead of skill and experience.  But despite their remarkable ability, airline pilots can and do make mistakes and have problems.

For example, an Air Canada first officer had a mental breakdown recently on a transatlantic flight, causing the flight to be diverted.  In 1991 EgyptAir 990, a Boeing 767 flying from New York to Cairo, crashed at sea, killing over 200 people.  Turns out the first officer probably committed suicide, taking everyone else with him as he dived the plane straight into the water.  In a few other cases, airline pilots have been caught drinking immediately before flying, an offense with serious career and legal consequences.

So what protects us from the human frailties of pilots?  Despite the controls and scrutiny of government and airline officials, the answer is that once in a rare while, the person flying the plane is going to be impaired or is going to make a mistake.  When that happens, the unsettling answer is that nothing can protect us.

The next time you’re herded into an airplane and squeezed into your cramped seat, just remember that your fate is in the hands of the people up front.  They can’t all be as exemplary as Captain Sullenberger, but they’re the most skilled professionals you’re likely to deal with on an average day.

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7 Responses to “Hudson River Crash”

  1. Kevin |

    Well said, Tom.

    And not to take anything at all away from Sullenberger’s absolutely phenominal feat, but all the reports I’ve heard and read say that the entire crew, including flight attendants, performed virtually flawlessly. In fact, the one attendant who apparently received the worst injury of the lot reportedly deserves a great deal of credit for the aircraft remaining afloat by preventing a panicked passenger from opening the rear-most door which would have flooded the aircraft. And she did it with a serious injury that caused a significant loss of blood.

    All of which seems to me to go to Tom’s main point here – that flying passengers are in the hands of skilled, competent professionals.

    It seems like an awefully easy or even glamorous (international flights…) job. But this crash underscores how misleading that appearance really is.

  2. Tom |

    You’re absolutely right, Kevin. From everything I’ve read, the entire US Airways crew performed extremely well, and they share credit for the survival of all the passengers.

    The captain normally gets individual credit or blame because he’s in command and in crises is usually the one flying the plane. In addition, I used him here as an example of the ideal. On that day, he was backed-up by a team of real heroes.

  3. Kevin |

    In this case I don’t think there’s any question but that the Captain deserves the lion’s share of the credit. The rest of the crew, as admirably as they all performed, rode his coattails in the sense that he provided the conditions for them to do their jobs competently.

    One really interesting thing that has come out of the media obsession with every aspect of this crash and the individuals involved… is the Captain’s experience piloting gliders as a hobby. I wonder if some sort of at least minimal glider training might not end up being a requirement for that kind of job in the future.

    One thing that’s come out about Sullenberger’s past experience which you didn’t touch on was that when he graduated from fighter pilot school in the Air Force he was deemed the best pilot out of all his peers. I’d say his most recent flight comfirms that assessment in spades.

  4. doris |

    I’m pretty tired of the media on this,but now it’s only the inauguration,just why do all news become obsessed with one news item and to haiti with all ,I mean all,other news?I heard the people in the Hudson River crash will all receive 5000 dollars for their trauma-is this enough?I bet there will be many lawsuits.Do you think the crew will get a bonus,I bet not.They should.

  5. Jan |

    News editors drive reporters crazy too with their herky jerky attention spans. But this plane crash was an incredible event, even for media-saturated New York, with lots of heroes.

  6. Rob |

    A very interesting reading! I linked to this post from my blog.

    All the best

    P.S. Thanks for your comment on my post.

  7. lillie |

    Tom, I have only just read your post about the Hudson River Crash – you are so right, absolutely. I love to read your articles, but this one touched me. I cannot tell you how many times in my past when I was on commercial flights that I seriously thought about the pilot and co-pilot and their capabilities, experience and current life situation. You can watch them walking through the airport or boarding a plane and wonder how their day is going, or their night went. Were they up for the job that morning? So your article caused me to re-live those times of wonder. I am so thankful that this particular pilot was a hero, and certainly his crew were, too. That one attendant truly was, if she kept the panicked passenger from opening the door and flooding the plane!! I love reading of such heroism. Thanks again for the opportunity. P.S. Maybe being the sister of a pilot was why I have had such thoughts previously before flights. I have always idolized my brother and hoped those pilots were as skilled!

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