Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger was the US Airways captain who guided his suddenly engineless Airbus into the Hudson River on January 15, 2009, after striking a flock of Canada geese. Together with the majority of my colleagues, I have the utmost respect for Captain Sullenberger. But that’s just it: respect. It’s not adoration or a false, media-fattened misunderstanding of what he and his crew faced that day. As the public has come to understand it, Sully saved the lives of everybody on board through nerves of steel and superhuman flying skills. The truth isn’t quite so romantic.
I was getting a haircut one day not long after the accident when Nick the barber asked what I did for a living. As is too often the case, any talk of piloting at some point turns to the saga of Sully-upon-Hudson, and this was no exception. Nick grew starry-eyed. “Man, that was something.” he said. “How did the guy ever land that plane on the water like that?” Nick wasn’t looking for a literal answer, but I gave him one anyway. “Pretty much the same way he’s landed 12,000 other times in his career” was my response. There was silence after that, which I took to mean that Nick was either silently impressed or thinking “what an asshole.”
I was exaggerating but eager to make a point: that the nuts and bolts of gliding into water aren’t especially difficult. The common sense of water landings is one of the reasons pilots don’t even train for them in simulators. Another reason is that having to land in water will always be the byproduct of something inherently more serious—a fire, multiple engine failures, or some other catastrophic malfunction. That is the crux of the emergency, not the resultant landing.
And nowhere in the public discussion has the role of luck been adequately acknowledged. Specifically, the time and place where things went wrong. As it happened, it was daylight and the weather was reasonably good; there off Sullenberger’s left side was a 12-mile runway of smoothly flowing river, within swimming distance of the country’s largest city and its flotilla of rescue craft. Had the bird-strike occurred over a different part of the city, at a lower altitude (beyond gliding distance to the Hudson), or under more inclement weather conditions, the result was going to be an all-out catastrophe, and no amount of talent or skill was going to matter.
Sullenberger, to his credit, has been duly humble, acknowledging the points I make above. People pooh-pooh this as false modesty or self-effacing charm, when really he’s just being honest. He has also highlighted the unsung role played his first officer, Jeffrey Skiles. There were two pilots on board, and both needed to rise to the occasion.
Nothing they did was easy, and a successful outcome was by no means guaranteed. But they did what they had to do, what they were trained to do, and what, presumably, any other crew would have done in that same situation. And let’s not forget the flight attendants, whose actions were no less commendable. Thus the passengers owe their survival not to miracles or heroics, but to less glamorous forces. They are, in descending order (pardon the pun): luck, professionalism, skill, and technology.
There’s little harm in celebrating the unlikely survival of 155 people, but terms like “hero” and “miracle” shouldn’t be thrown around lightly. A miracle describes an outcome that cannot be rationally explained. Everything that happened on the river that day can be rationally explained. And a hero, to me, describes a person who accepts a great personal sacrifice, up to and including injury or death, for the benefit of somebody else. I didn’t see heroics; I saw professional execution in the throes of an emergency.
And if we’re going to lavish praise on men like Sullenberger, who did not perish, what of the others like him, whose stories you’ve likely never heard, mainly because their planes didn’t come splashing down alongside the world’s media capital? I give you Captain Brian Witcher and his crew aboard United Airlines flight 854, a 767 flying from Buenos Aires to Miami in April 2004. They never made headlines, but what they had to deal with was almost unthinkable: a complete electrical failure over the Andes at three o’clock in the morning. Under darkness, with their cockpit instruments dead or dying fast, including all radios and navigational equipment, they managed a successful emergency landing in mountain-ringed Bogota, Colombia.
Or consider the predicament facing American Eagle Captain Barry Gottshall and first officer Wesley Greene three months earlier. Moments after takeoff from Bangor, Maine, their Embraer regional jet suffered a freak system failure resulting in full and irreversible deflection of the plane’s rudder. Struggling to maintain control, they returned to Bangor under deteriorating weather. Visibility had fallen to a mile, and as the thirty-seven-seater approached the threshold, Gottshall had to maintain full aileron deflection—that is, the control wheel turned to the stops and held there—to keep from yawing into the woods.
If you need a couple of heroes, take Gotshall and Greene, whose emergency must have been incredibly harrowing. Theirs was pure seat-of-the-pants improv. A fully deflected rudder? There are no checklists for that one.