Tuesday, January 20, 2009

No Accident

Last Thursday, I had a long Newark layover that got in around noon. As soon as we got to the hotel, my FO and I changed and took the train to NYC. My FO hadn't been to New York since 9/11 so we visited the site - little construction has taken place since I visited two years ago, sadly - and then walked around visiting other sights in Lower Manhattan. Around 3:40, we were in line at the Staten Island Ferry Terminal when my FO noticed a number of Port Authority Police boats rushing over to the Hudson with their lights on. Two news helicopters were hovering nearly motionless at around 1000 feet over the Statue of Liberty; they were soon joined by five others. It was obvious something was up.

We boarded the ferry and peered up the Hudson as we steamed out into the harbor. A lot of other people were too. I asked around whether anybody knew what was going on. One girl told me there'd been a plane crash in the Hudson. "Was it a small plane?" I asked. "Yes," she replied, "around 150 seats."

My heart sank. It's been over two years since the last fatal airline crash in the US, and the last big crash for the majors was American 587 here in NYC in Nov 2001 - an amazing stretch of safety unparalleled in the history of aviation. Perhaps this girl had her facts wrong? I got out my phone and loaded CNN's website. Sure enough, the breaking news: a USAirways flight from LGA to CLT had crashed in the Hudson. It was accompanied by a single picture that suggested an outcome very different from what I feared: an intact airframe bobbing tranquilly afloat as the passengers filed out onto the wings to await rescue.

Since then the details of this remarkable flight have emerged and seized the world's imagination. It was an improbable accident with a seemingly even more improbable outcome. Many of us within aviation are just as amazed as the general public. Ditchings in airliners do not have a history of turning out well. To carry out a textbook ditching within three minutes of having both engines fail while over the Bronx will stand as a great feat of aviation for a long time. Captain Sullenburger has become an instant hero to not only the general public but many airline pilots as well. Even Dave at FL350, who is an experienced Captain on the same plane for the same airline, says he thinks that not more than a dozen pilots on the line could've pulled this off. I've been meaning to post my thoughts on this since Thursday but Dawn and I hopped over to London the last few days to take advantage of the 3-day weekend, so I'm a little late to the party.

It's obvious that if you're going to have this happen while you're riding in the back, Captain Sullenburger is one of the guys you'd want in the front left seat. Beyond being an experienced Captain with a lot of time in the airplane, he's been deeply involved in safety throughout his career. He was USAirways' ALPA safety committee chairman, has investigated accidents with the Air Force & NTSB, served as an instructor with USAirways and helped pioneer their CRM program, and most recently started a consulting firm that advises non-aviation companies in how to use processes gleaned from the airline world to better their reliability and safety. Although we don't know much about what happened in the cockpit during the ditching yet, we do know that Sullenburger was a Captain's Captain in his conduct during the evacuation and afterwards.

That said, there were a lot of things going on here that go beyond Captain Sullenburger. First off, he wasn't the only crew in that airplane. Both the First Officer and the flight attendants were very experienced, and obviously very capable. The aft flight attendant, in particular, is known to have stopped panicking passengers from opening the rear doors, which would've sunk the airplane much more quickly. Luck played a pretty big role, too. If they'd hit those birds at 500 feet of altitude instead of 3000, this could've turned out very differently. If the 1/2 mile visibility in snow that prevailed earlier in the day had stuck around, I doubt the outcome would've been so positive. If you're going to have to ditch an airliner, you can't really beat a calm Hudson River just off midtown Manhattan.

I'm going to have to disagree with Dave in his assessment that only a handful of pilots could've pulled this off. I personally think that a majority of airline pilots, if put in this situation, would rise to the occasion. This outcome was no accident in the same way that the safety record of the last eight years hasn't been an accident. It is instead the product of a safety culture almost unique to the airlines, one which has the efforts of thousands of pilots like Captain Sullenburger at its core. The fact that the crew responded so well to a scenario nobody trained for isn't only a testament to the crew, it's also a testament to a system that has in recent years recognized that the most serious situations are usually those that are unforeseen and has responded by adjusting training to emphasize dealing with situations there's no checklist for. It's a system that recognizes that truly safe pilots are made, not born. It's a system that seeks out deficiencies and remedies them, that hunts down threats and reduces risks.

So in short, my hat is off to the entire crew, as well as the passengers who mostly behaved well and those who quickly came to their rescue. My hat is especially off to Captain Sullenburger, not just for his excellent job ditching the airplane and supervising the evacuation, but for his role in shaping a system that creates thousands of pilots just like him in cockpits across the nation.


Sarah said...

Excellent post and heartfelt appreciation for job(s) well done.

I also liked your description of a sim. ride and the awful "unscripted" scenarios they put you through. I was interested to read Dave's ( just above you at fl390 ) description of the double-failure on t/o as "not-trained for". It was described as probably not survivable, and if a suitable landing area wasn't right there it was going to be a crash.

Sounds like a crucial correct decision - where do I go, back, Teterboro or the water - and some amount of good luck.

Stay safe up there.

Traytable said...

Well said. I used to read your blog regularly, looking fwd to catching up on it a bit more.

zb said...

I liked this post. Just a detail, but you might want to make the above statement that gives details not only about "the same plane" but also about "the same airline" a bit more ambiguous. Long time readers of the mentioned blog have figured it out, but we might not want search engines to find the same key words in the same article. I might be wrong, though.

Ron said...

I just wrote about the total engine failure training scenarios on my blog as well, but your IMC what-if scenario made me think of a related question: why don't the MFDs in airliners have the option of displaying some terrain features (like rivers and lakes, for example)?

You can get this basic information from a $500 Garmin handheld aviation GPS.

If the dual engine failure HAD happened in IMC, that's the sort of data which could have allowed a pilot to make it to the Hudson River, even in IMC. It would have been far more dicey, but at least the pilots would have had a shot at it.

Displaying these things on an MFD might also prevent pilots from landing at the wrong airport during a visual approach. I saw that happen at Marana Regional in December. A 757 landed at AVQ instead of Pinal Airpark, where they were taking their 757 to be placed in long-term storage. Quite a sight: aerobatic competitors and their aircraft scattering at the sight of this huge airliner landing at the wrong airport... and in the wrong direction, too.

Anonymous said...


Putting terrain features on an MFD to 10m accuracy isn't hugely difficult. It just takes money and a large database. The very hard part is using that information fly survivable IFR approach with enough precision to ditch in the river and not hit e.g. the skyscraper next to it.

Anonymous said...

Agree with your comment about Captain Dave saying "only a handful could pull this off". Many experienced pilots (who understand that gliding leaves little error)probably would have had the same outcome. The key was that Sully wasted no time in the decision making of where to land and that was the key ingredient to the success of this story. Trying to stretch it to TEB gives me the chills....no thank you. Heck they probably would have asked him to contact clearance for the delay program. ;-)

Don't get me wrong, Capt. Sully did a great job but it wasn't a superman effort that only few could have matched. Who says pilots make too much money?

Great blog!!

ambrosen said...

What do you think about Captain Dave saying about it taking a fair bit of expertise to make sure that both engines hit the water more or less together, otherwise one would have dug in. Do you think that's particularly expert to do that with both engines out?

Steven Pam said...


Great post, thanks.

I agree wholeheartedly that this story is not about a moment of heroism - it's about airmanship; a lifetime of training; and a legacy of training and safety systems left behind by our aviating forefathers/mothers.


the other sam said...

I'm suffering from FL250 withdrawal.

Sam said...

Haha sorry dude. Lots going on. I'll get a post or three up pretty soon!


the other sam said...

:) looking forward to it! I know you're busy.

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