Thursday, January 29, 2009

A Flash from the Past

I’ve tried, but I can’t resist. Many friends and relatives have asked me for comment about ‘The Miracle on the Hudson’, US Airways Flight 1549, which on January 15th went for a bath after striking a flock of Canada Geese on climbout from New York City’s LaGuardia airport.

Everything about this accident was remarkable. I say accident because even though no lives were lost, the aircraft was significantly damaged. The Captain AND First Officer essentially saved many lives. The Flight Attendants did their most important job superbly. The Police, Fire, and commercial ferry boats responded immediately and in an excellent manner. Bravo! To everyone involved. It feels great to witness a real life episode seemingly straight out of a prime time drama.

The Co-pilot, Jeff Skiles, was flying the plane, and said he saw the geese ahead just before they hit. The Captain, Chesley ‘Sully’ Sullenberger looked up and ducked (ha ha get it) with his hands up.

If he saw them, why didn’t he maneuver the jet to avoid them? It would’ve been an abrupt change in attitude, and may not have made a difference, but may have been worth trying. However, after thinking about it a little, when we see birds it’s usually too late to maneuver much. Most times they’re already trying to get out of our way. And the way geese and ducks fly in V-formation flocks, they’re probably less likely to scatter away in all directions like a busted covey of quail do. They just follow their wingman, who follows his wingman, and so on. Two dangers with waterfowl are that (1) if you hit one, you’ll likely hit many, because of their line abreast, same altitude formation, and (2) mass times velocity = very damaging momentum.

The big honkers, weighing 12 pounds apiece, sacrificed their lives while being shredded by the Airbus A320’s engines. In return, the engines sacrificed their flight giving thrust and were broken by the birds. The plane quickly became a quiet glider, as you can see it encircled in the picture above.

Captain Sullenberger took over the controls immediately and delegated First Officer Skiles to run the emergency checklists, probably primarily because Jeff Skiles had only 35 hours flight time in the Airbus A320. He had been at US Airways for 23 years, but had just transitioned to the A320. Neither engine could be restarted. Just three and a half minutes later they were in the drink. ‘Sully’ first considered turning back 180 degrees to LaGuardia, then thought about Teterboro airport in New Jersey, southwest of their position north of Manhattan. Very soon his experience and judgment made it clear that the best option was a ditching in the freezing and fast flowing Hudson River.

A link to a good, although grainy dockside security camera video of the actual aircraft splashing down is here.

This is another link to a longer video which shows the landing and the downriver travel and rescue.

For even more detail, this link gives much information.

It all happened so fast that Emergency preparations on board had to be rushed. In spite of that, everything turned out wonderfully for the 155 souls on board.

Because Co-Pilot Skiles couldn’t complete the three page checklist in time, the ‘ditch switch’, a pushbutton switch in the flight deck which closes valves and doors below the waterline to improve the aircraft’s buoyancy, wasn’t selected until after splashdown.

An anxious passenger just trying to help opened one of the rear cabin doors a crack, something you’re not to do in a water ditching. Cold water rushed in but the plane stayed level enough, long enough for the passengers to walk on water, so it seemed. Many of them walked from the wing right on to a rescue boat.

Have I ever hit a bird or birds in flight? Yes, and no. Small birds only, on takeoff or landing usually. Half a dozen times I’ve found brown, black, and red paint smudges on my plane. No engine or windscreen hits have occurred yet, thank goodness. They can be loud and can crack the glass or worse.

I’ve experienced a few close calls over my time sharing the sky with the birds though. I was a Captain of the ‘mighty’ Beechcraft 1900D ‘Airliner’, a 19 seat twin turboprop. It had two advantages: a ‘stand up cabin’ tall enough inside to walk down the aisle, and every seat was both a window and an aisle. Disadvantages: no autopilot, no lavatory, no Flight Attendant, no coffee, and no security or comfort, for the Pilot or the peeps.

One cold night in the fall of 2001 we were descending through multiple cloud layers for a visual approach into Williston, a small town in northwestern North Dakota. We were just below the lowest layer about 3,000 feet above the ground, looking for the green and white airport beacon. I had the landing lights on, and we were still hitting a few bits of scud, scattered pieces of cloud below the main layer. It was like getting cotton candy thrown at your face at the drive in movie.

Shapes, right above us, six of them suddenly, were there and gone in an instant. ‘Holy s___! What was that? They were shaped liked birds. What else could they be but birds. Big birds too, honkers. They were too big to be anything else. Ok, we didn’t hit them, didn’t even see them coming. There were right above us and gone, in a flash. We’re ok, time to go land the plane. If the landing lights hadn’t been on we would’ve missed seeing them completely, oblivious to the danger now known. What if there are others? Go land the plane, there’s nothing you can do about it anyway.’

This night, and for US 1549, everything turned out just fine. But it doesn’t always. Life has it’s unexpected, tragic moments, which cause all of us to doubt and question God, and the fairness, or unfairness rather, of it all. The Almighty wants us to depend on him when either happens.

From Jeremiah 29:11: “For I know the plans I have for you," declares the Lord, "plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future." And from I Corinthians 2:9: "No eye has seen, no ear has heard, no mind has conceived what God has prepared for those who love him."

I don't know if 'Sully', Jeff, or any others of his crew are Christians, but in any case, he was the right pilot in the right place at the right time. Why do I think the outcome of this emergency was made to order, ordained from on high for Captain Chesley Sullenberger and crew? You know, most airline pilots go their entire careers without having a serious emergency, much less a dual engine failure, close to terra firma. Let’s look at his biography:

Chesley B. "Sully" Sullenberger, III is a captain for a major U.S. airline with over 40 years of flying experience. A former U.S. Air Force (USAF) fighter pilot, he has served as an instructor and Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA) safety chairman, accident investigator and national technical committee member. He has participated in several USAF and NTSB accident investigations. His ALPA safety work led to the development of a Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) Advisory Circular. Working with NASA scientists, he coauthored a paper on error inducing contexts in aviation. He was instrumental in the development and implementation of the Crew Resource Management (CRM) course used at his airline and has taught the course to hundreds of his colleagues. Sully is a graduate of the U.S. Air Force Academy (B.S.), Purdue University (M.S.) and the University of Northern Colorado (M.A.). And he is a trained glider instructor pilot.

1 comment:

Kim said...

Thanks, Craig! The videos and personal story made it very real to me!