Fly by Wire: The Geese, the Glide, the Miracle on the Hudson - William Langewiesche It's a mantra of mine that there's no point reading about events in the newspaper because the whole truth will not surface until time has passed and someone has written a book about the incident. I am fascinated by technology and especially transportation technology and follow NTSB reports carefully and with interest since, as another favorite author, Henry Petroski has pointed out, we learn more from our failures than from our successes. But it's nice when you get a really good author to summarize things. Langewiesche is one of my favorite authors. A pilot himself, he has written extensively about flying, so he was a logical person to analyze the famous A320 landing in the Hudson. As even Sullenburger as pointed out, the resultant success was certainly no miracle, it was a tribute to training and the competence of the pilots. That they managed to pull it off in the midst of horrible union-management relationship is perhaps even more remarkable.

Sullenberger had a trait that was perhaps even more important than training, focus, the ability to exclude all outside distractions and zero in on what needed to be done at the time. This trait was even more evident after the landing when he was being interviewed and dissected on television. Langewiesche contrasts his reactions to that of Skiles, his co-pilot, a man of many thousands of hours of experience (albeit in successive airplane types as the airline kept switching) who will probably never make captain because of cutbacks in the industry and who only had a few dozen hours in the A320. Sullenberger's focus translated into a realization that this was an opportunity to gain financial security for his family (his pension had been wiped out and his salary cut by 40% even as US Airways executive pay had increased.) It would also provide the chance to say some things about the industry while people were listening. At the NTSB hearing, following adulation and applause from the audience, "he said, 'I am worried that the airline piloting profession will not be able to continue to attract the best and the brightest.' His message was that successive generations of pilots willing to work for lower wages might perform less well in flight, and especially during emergencies. Sullenberger seems to believe this, but it is a questionable assertion, since it links financial incentive to individual competence, and ignores the fact that, with exceptions, the 'best and the brightest” have never chosen to become airline pilots, at whatever salary, because of the terrible this-is-my-life monotony of the job. Furthermore, although unusual stupidity is often fatal in flying, the correlation between superior intelligence and safety is unproven, given the other factors that intrude—especially arrogance, boredom, and passive rebellions of various kinds. If you had to pick the most desirable trait for airline pilots, it would probably be placidity." Sullenberger was politically astute, unlike Skiles who had nothing nice to say about US Airways management, yet the book Sullenberger was carrying and reading on this trip was "Just Culture: Balancing Safety and Accountability, about precisely such issues in the airlines and similar organizations."

The A320 is a unique airplane, almost semi-robotic in design and the fact is that the plane did a lot of the flying after losing both engines. Pilots didn't like the idea behind the plane because in theory it was built on the principle that computers can fly better than any human and, indeed, should override pilots in times of emergency. (This is certainly the case in the AA crash in 2001 over New York when the co-pilot over stressed the rudder in reaction to wake turbulence.) The Airbus engineers "knew that the airplane’s flight-control computers had performed remarkably well, seamlessly integrating themselves into Sullenberger’s solutions and intervening assertively at the very end to guarantee a survivable touchdown. The test pilots believed that the airplane’s functioning was a vindication of its visionary design."

Both pilots were well-rested, at the beginning of a four-day trip that would involve switching airplanes with other crews as the airline attempts to keep airplanes constantly in the air generating revenue. While pay has been cut for pilots on most airlines, the job does allow for a considerable amount of time at home and Sullenberger had averaged 16 hours of flying per week. Because he lived far away from his home base, he had to "dead-head" often to his first flight of the rotation. US Airways was not the greatest company t work for. In and out of bankruptcy, surviving only because of post-2001 government bailouts, it had reduced costs by more than a billion dollars by shaving salaries of employees and reducing the number of aircraft. Sullenberger was quoted as saying the airline executives used "employees like an ATM." Finally it was taken over by America West, (which gave up its name and assumed US Airways as the corporate logo) a relatively well-run company partially wned by Airbus, which explains the parking of 737s and other non-Airbus models. But war had been declared between pilots of the former and the latter over the terms of the newly unified contract. When they left New York, the plane had an extremely experienced crew, the cabin attendants each having more than 25 years of experience, Doreen Welsh alone had 38 years of airline work. "Between the pilots up front and the flight attendants in the cabin, this was not a crew you wanted to complain to about the peanuts." That's not the only humor. Langewiesche remarks on the ever-increasing safety announcements: "the do-not-hide-in-the-bathrooms-and-try-to-smoke-after-disabling-the-smoke-detectors, the thank-you-for-flying-our-miserable-airline." Ironically, the one thing they did not mention was that the emergency slides could be disconnected ad used as life rafts. On a flight to Charlotte? Who needs life rafts? No mention was made of life-vests as US Airways, to save money, had disconnected the video system that discussed all the safety features including life-vests, which explains why so few passengers actually had them on. It was lucky no one drowned.

Traffic at LaGuardia that day was considered light. At most other airports in the country the same level of traffic would have been overwhelming. LaGuardia's controllers were brilliantly handling landing and departing flights on runways that crossed and interweaving snowplows on the runways at the same time. "He put Northwest into position on Runway 4, ready to roll through the first gap offered by the inbound traffic and the plows. By no means was he yet working at his full capacity. One gets the feeling he was simultaneously juggling eggs and maybe playing Scrabble, just to limber up for the evening rush still to come." If you ever fly United tune to channel 9 where you can listen in on the cockpit radio chatter. Fascinating. (If anyone really cares, let me know and I'll recount an astonishing conversation I heard flying into Allentown, PA, one afternoon.)

Bird strikes are fairly common (an earlier issue of Airways magazine has some rather interesting pictures of damage done to planes following collision with a bird) hitting planes several hundred thousand times between 1990 and 2007. On that day there had been no reports of birds (they are so common over NY what would be the point?) and even though they showed up on the raw radar image (it's cleaned up for controllers) it would have been of no use since the controllers would have had no idea of their altitude. Why the birds did not move out of the way is the source of some interesting speculation on the part of bird experts. The one I liked was "that in their own manner the geese might also simply have thought, “What the fuck! We have the right of way here!” He was joking, sort of."

This is a remarkable story, remarkably told, providing context and detail not available in one place elsewhere. It's also an encomium to a brilliantly designed airplane.