Newsmakers 2009: Sully’s Splashdown: A story of redemption for pilots

 - December 29, 2009, 5:07 AM

When Capt. Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger brought the aft belly skin of his US Airways Airbus A320 into contact with the cold water of New York’s Hudson River on January 15 and pulled off a magnificent emergency ditching after Canada geese had choked the life out of both engines, he restored to the piloting profession an aura of cool skill and professionalism that had been sullied by decades of accidents blamed on pilot error. Indeed, within months of Sully’s splashdown, an accident (the Colgan Q400 disaster near Buffalo in February) and an incident (the Northwest “laptop affair” Minneapolis overshoot) swiftly tarnished the fresh luster.

But God bless Sully for showing a world wearied by bad news what good old-fashioned piloting can achieve in an era when the profession of airline pilot has been distilled to a job centered more on monitoring automation than on stick-and-rudder finesse. Like the pilot who deadsticked an Air Canada 767 onto the disused runway of a former RCAF base in Gimli, Manitoba, in July 1983 after a fueling dipstick error at the departure airport silenced both engines en route, Sully counted gliding among his flying experience.

The engines of the A320 sucked in Canada geese at 2,800 feet scant seconds after takeoff from New York La Guardia Airport. With power severely compromised, Sully alerted controllers that he would be returning to La Guardia but soon realized those runways were out of reach. “What’s over to our right? Anything in New Jersey, maybe Teterboro?” he asked. With his altitude dwindling, that, too, soon vanished as an option.

After some discussion by controllers about rolling the crash trucks at TEB, Sully said, “We can’t do it.”

“OK, which runway would you like at Teterboro?” asked a controller. Sully calmly announced in his last transmission, “We’re going to be in the Hudson.”

Only a fellow pilot, aware of the slim odds for putting an airliner down in water without breaking apart in the process, can fully appreciate the enormity of what confronted Sully and his first officer, Jeffrey Skiles.

Was it the Airbus’s fly-by-wire flight control system that saved the day, as William Langewiesche asserts in his latest book? Perhaps it helped, but sorry, old friend, I firmly believe that many a lesser airline pilot would have made a hash of that emergency, FBW or no FBW. Along with Skiles, Sully deserves all the praise he has received for an unmitigated feat of superb judgment and airmanship. Fly-by-wire didn’t make the decision that first LGA and then TEB would be out of reach. FBW couldn’t scrutinize the cliffs of the Palisades or the towers and span of the George Washington suspension bridge or the densely populated region over which this predicament was unfolding. Two pairs of human eyes surveyed that grim array of options and Sully’s vision illuminated the decisions that saved the lives of 153 people in the back.

Satisfying the public’s yearning to meet the “Hudson Heroes,” Sully and Skiles became fixtures in the media and the image of the airline pilot enjoyed renewed luster. But it was at an NTSB hearing in June that 57-year-old Sullenberger tackled the more serious task of telling the harsh truths about his deteriorating profession in an era of longer working hours, lower pay and corporate disregard for the intangible qualification known as “experience.” No one in 2009 was more qualified to occupy that pulpit than Sullenberger.