Tuesday, January 27, 2009

My Thoughts On US Airways 1549

Most pilots find the initial mainstream media coverage of aviation accidents humorous. We chuckle when the local news reporter recounts the amazing story of a plane that somehow lands without being able to put it's wheels down (this is perhaps the most frequent aviation accident and almost never causes injury). Our eyes roll when we hear about the incredible pilot who lands on the highway after running out of gas. We know the pilot was a moron for running out of gas in the first place and that landing on a highway is no big deal for any decent pilot. Then there was the case of the "hero" pilot who was caught on camera attempting to land in severe conditions. I exposed the fact that he was wrecklessly trying to land on the wrong runway in a dangerous crosswind.

As a commercially rated pilot and a certified flight instructor, I was still quite amazed when I heard about this accident.

I had just landed on a commercial flight to Ft. Lauderdale when I saw the coverage. I immediately assumed that the pictures of an intact airliner in the water in New York City occurred when it skidded off a runway at LaGuardia. Frankly, most pilots had considered the possibility of a commercial airliner landing in the water intact to be somewhat of a joke. The crash scene from the movie Castaway or the fate Ethiopian Airlines Flight 961 seems a more likely outcome for this scenario. I was astonished to find out that the plane had actually landed in the Hudson River, not Long Island Sound.

Over at Meadow's Lane, Eric has rightfully commended the entire crew for their bravery, not just the Captain.

As for Captain Sully, I believe that his brilliance was not merely the landing itself, but his timely decision to attempt the landing. I think that that any professional airline pilot should have been capable of making such a landing, however very few would have chosen to do so in time to have the chance to save everyone on board. This has always been a consideration for me as a general aviation (light aircraft) pilot. When I flew a four seat plane to Alaska, I always anticipated landing in the water if I were to have an engine failure, rather than impacting the forests or mountains. Water landings in small aircraft are much more survivable than most dry landings other than on a road or a field.

The truth about being a great pilot is that it is more about making the right decisions quickly than having superior hand/eye coordination. In making the decision to land on the Hudson, his actions went beyond bravery into the realm of chutzpah. In fact, aviation experts are now reconsidering their recommendations for when a "water landing" might be the safest alternative for a stricken airliner.

Finally, for all of my criticisms of domestic airlines terrible customer service, and blatant hypocrisy, there is clearly one area in commercial aviation where the United States leads the world, safety. Having now gone over two years without a fatal accident, we are currently setting historic new milestones for commercial aviation that we can be proud of.

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