Search Box

Friday, January 16, 2009

An American hero

All 155 passengers aboard US Airways Flight 1549 are undoubtedly very grateful that their pilot was Chesley B. Sullenberger III, a former F-4 fighter jet pilot with the Air Force.

According to Yahoo, "He served on a board that investigated aircraft accidents and participated later in several National Transportation Safety Board investigations. Sullenberger had been studying the psychology of keeping airline crews functioning even in the face of crisis."

He evidently runs a safety consulting firm in addition to having been an airline pilot since 1980.

Sullenberger is also an experienced glider pilot. (His Airbus 320 was effectively turned into a glider as its engines gave out.)

All of which made him the ideal expert to land the airplane, as gently as possible, onto the Hudson River yesterday.

What made him a hero was that after everybody was off, he walked the length of the airplane twice to make absolutely certain that there was no one else left onboard.

Imagine the scene. The airplane is half submerged, with the icy Hudson lapping against the windows of the plane. The cabin lights are no longer working, so you can barely see in the darkness. The airplane could sink at any second, a situation exacerbated by the extra weight of the passengers standing outside on the wings.

I can't think of any way I really want to die. But one of the last ways I'd want to go is trapped inside a sinking airplane, drowning in murky 36 degree water.

Yet Sullenberger risked exactly that, just to make sure that everyone else was safe.

In an era when the headlines are dominated by the likes of Blagojevich and Madoff, Sullenberger came along at just the right time. This is someone we needed to hear about.

Here's hoping that Sullenberger's fifteen minutes stretch out much longer, to the end of his life.


Anonymous said...

This incident reminds me of Tom Wolfe’s “The Right Stuff”, which Sullenberger clearly had.

In particular there is a passage in this book at the beginning of the chapter “Yeager”.

“Anyone who travels very much on airlines in the United States soon gets to know the voice of the *airline pilot*… coming over the intercom … with that particular drawl, a particular folksiness, a particular down-home calmness that is so exaggerated it begins to parody itself (nevertheless! it’s reassuring) … the voice that tells you, as the airliner is caught in the thunderheads and goes bolting up and down a thousand feet at a single gulp, to check your seat belts because “it might get a little choppy” …. the voice that tells you (on a flight from Phoenix preparing for its final approach into Kennedy Airport, New York, just after dawn): “Now, folks, uh… this is the captain… ummmmm … we’ve got a little ol’ red light up here on the control panel that’s tryin’ to tell us that the landin’ gears’re not …uh…lockin’ into position when we lower ‘em…Now….I don’t believe that little ol’ red light knows what its talkin’ about - I believe it’s the little ol’ red light that iddn’ workin’ right”…faint chuckle, long pause, as if to say, *I’m not even sure all this is really worth going into – still it may amuse you…..*”

(the passage goes on, they do a fly by, ground observers cannot verify that the landing gear is properly positioned)

“… And “oh”… (I *almost forgot*)… “while we take a little swing out over the ocean an’ empty some of that surplus fuel we’re not gonna be needin’ anymore – that’s what you might be seein’ comin’ out of the wings – our lovely little ladies … if they’ll be so kind … they’re gonna go up and down the aisles and show you how we do what we call ‘assumin’ the position’” … another faint chuckle (*We do this so often, and it’s so much fun, we even have a funny little name for it*) …and the stewardesses, a bit grimmer, by the looks of them, than *that voice*, start telling the passengers to take their glasses off and take the ball point pens and other sharp objects out of their pockets, and they show them *the position*, with the head lowered… while down on the field at Kennedy the little yellow emergency trucks start roaring across the field – and even though in your pounding heart and your sweating palms and your broiling brainpan you *know* this is a critical moment in your life, you still can’t quite bring yourself to believe it, because if it were… how could the captain, the man who knows the actual situation most intimately… how could he keep on drawlin’ and chucklin’ and driftin’ and lollygaggin’ in that special voice of his "

(end of passage quoted here)

The reason he can do that is because he has THE RIGHT STUFF. And part of that is the icy calmness in a crisis situation. He thinks clearly, follows procedure, makes good decisions with a mind not muddled with panic or emotion.

There is a gender component to think about here. Any adult knows that one gender is much more emotional than the other. Which gender is likely to have THE RIGHT STUFF to save 150+ lives in this crisis situation?

And the male brain has a documented advantage is special relationships versus women. Why do women get lost so easily? Why isn’t there just one division in chess competition – why would there be a women’s division and a men’s division in chess?

Being good with special relationships is extremely important when you’re attempting to put a large airliner gently down on a river with none of the supporting lights, painted lines, etc. that are on a normal runway.

This clearly isn’t the sort of occupation where gender affirmative action should be applied.

John Craig said...

Thanks for your comment. The wonderful thing about Wolfe is that he has the ability to make his heroes your heroes. He did this for me with both Chuck Yeager and Ken Kesey.

I'll never forget when they cast that skinny neurasthenic playwright Sam Shepard as Chuck Yeager in the movie of "The Right Stuff," a total miscasting. They needed someone a little cockier, a little tougher, with a little more testosterone oozing from his pores. Of course, it would have been hard for any actor to live up to Wolfe's portrayal. (And I have to admit, when I actually saw Yeager himself shortly thereafter in those Pennzoil commercials, I felt that he seemed slightly miscast in the role as well.)

Now that you mention it, I can't recall ever having seen a woman pilot (except in "Goldfinger"). I don't think airline pilot is a position for which there has ever been a huge outcry for affirmative action of any sort.

Anonymous said...

I’ve run into two female pilots this year. One was on a large commercial airline flight - when I heard the female voice on the intercom, “hello I’m -----, I will be your captain today”, I thought, “I am going to die today”. True to form, though it was a clear sunny day, she delivered the hardest landing I’ve ever experienced. The second was in an 8 seat Cessna flying from Puerto Rico to a nearby island. She was ultra cautious and flew a long, long way down the runway before landing. On the way back on the same flight the pilot was a big black guy who swooped in and barely had the wings parallel to the ground when he touched down right at the front of the runway. I felt much more comfortable with the black guy – he could clearly fly the plane. The woman was tentative and unsure, and I think that’s the bigger problem. My female travel companion liked the woman pilot.

Anonymous said...

In your phobias blog you said "In a plane, you know there's absolutely no way you'd survive a crash."

Did this incident change your mind?

John Craig said...

What I meant was, there's no way I would survive a crash of the sort I described, going into a mountain at 500 mph. I guess I should have specified that.

Sullenberger effectively turned a potential crash into a gentle water landing. One of the passengers later described it as being no more violent than the log ride at Six flags.

This still begs the question of whether I would have survived it. In all honesty, probably not: I most likely would have had a heart attack.

Anonymous said...

If we had a man like this pilot as our president. I would feel confident about our country, knowing that we had a top-notch leader, that the man was competent at his job. If only some dreams were real.


John Craig said...

Birdie --
Yes, if only.

I suspect Sullenberger would be a little boring, but boring would be a welcome change from what we have now.