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Saint Sully: How About Some Credit for Airbus?

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The more I read about USAirways Flight 1549's dip in the icy Hudson River last winter and the more we beatify Chesley Sullenberger, the more I think there's not much more to learn from this accident; nothing below the surface, so to speak. The engines choked on birds, the pilots did a masterful job of ditching, everyone survived. It's that simple.

William Langewiesche's new book, Fly By Wire: The Geese, the Glide and the Miracle on the Hudson which I just completed this morning, doesn't change that view. There are now four books on this subject, according to Amazon, three of them with the word "miracle" in the headline. I'm surprised that Langewiesche's essay characterizes the outcome with this word, for to read his book you can only conclude that the Airbus 320 performed exactly as the engineers who created it designed it to and that Sullenberger and F/O Jeffrey Skiles did everything right. Why is this miraculous? Does not screwing up now merit religious overtones? If there's anything exceptionally fortuitous here, it's that everyone survived. The law of averages dictates some small number would die—just because. Stuff happens. But evidently, 10 to the 9th didn't come calling. (More like 10 squared, I guess.)

Langewiesche is an exceptional stylist with a flair for making lucid for a general audience the determinative minutiae of aviation, specifically the much-maligned fly-by-wire system used in the 320. "Much maligned" deserves qualification here. Boeing aficionados have fought a persistent rear-guard whisper campaign against the Airbus control system and to this day, every accident seems to re-ignite the dying embers of this argument, fanning it to new levels of white heat.

But a core contention of Langewiesche's analysis is that while praise was heaped upon Sullenberger and Skiles (deservedly), the airplane itself deserved a measure of credit. Accordingly, he artfully details the history and philosophy of the Airbus control system, including its tri-level slow-speed/high alpha control law architecture which gave 1549's pilots an edge they wouldn't have had in a Boeing.

"…Sullenberger and Skiles disarmed a bomb on a three-minute fuse. They did it by concentrating on the two really important matters—how to get the engines started, and where to land. They could have done it in a Boeing, too. But it was helpful to their immediate cause that they were working with the product of [Airbus design engineer] Ziegler's mind, in which computers took care of the menial chores, then conjured up a magic carpet for them to fly."

Although this book doesn't reveal any now-it-can-be-told factoids, it adds interesting texture to the story. For example, moments after the bird strike but before he took the airplane from Skiles, Sullenberger flipped on the APU. When he was asked later why he did this, he had no clear answer, other than to say it seemed like a good idea at the time. With aux power already flowing from the APU, Skiles was able to roll back the left engine—as the checklist directed him to do--to attempt a restart. Up to that point, the barely turning left had been providing the airplane's only electrical power, plus a warm breath of thrust. The right engine was crumped entirely. Had the left side spooled back without the APU on line, the airplane would have reverted to basic control law. Still flyable, but less optimal than the full control, protections and panel Sullenberger had to finesse the ditching.

As Langewiesche reports it, many of Sullenberger's replies at subsequent hearings were plain vanilla responses devoid of detail and perhaps partially calculated to favor the cause of the airline union of which he is a member. The investigation boards convened thus far have evidently been remarkable for their incuriousness on the part of the questioners.

In Sullenberger, we find a man who, for the space of three minutes and 31 seconds, was as focused and as engaged with a machine as it is possible to be, yet not much detail describing what drove his decision making and how the unique design of the Airbus may have shaped it has emerged. But there was one nugget. Here's his reply when asked by an Airbus representative how he picked an airspeed to fly.

"As we were not configured for landing...we didn't have a reference speed displayed on the PFD...so I chose to use a margin above VLS." In the Airbus, VLS is "velocity lowest selectable." With no stored configuration data for what he was about to do, Sullenberger had to guess and guess right the first time.

He did, although not perfectly. Airbus engineering analysis predicted that at full flaps, a pitch angle of 11 degrees and 3.5 feet per second descent would allow the hull to remain intact during impact. Ten seconds before impact, the descent rate was six times that, but Sullenberger—with help from the automation—pulled enough pitch to hit 11 degrees at impact, but at a higher-than-optimal descent rate. He split the difference. As the engineers might have predicted, the hull was damaged, but not so much to preclude complete evacuation.

Speaking of which, the cabin exit brought out both the best and worst in human nature, but probably more of the best. One man forced a woman to the floor during the exit, but prior to touchdown, another offered to take a woman's baby and brace the child against the looming impact, at no small risk to himself. "What more can be said of anyone?" Langewiesche asks.

The NTSB's accident report on 1549 will be done sometime after the first of the year. I'll be surprised if there are any eye-raising revelations, although I'm looking forward to reading the powerplant report to see what kind of damage those geese did. Oh, and for those who complain about the tree-huggers wailing about goose extermination around the New York airports, there's this bit: the ingested geese were determined to be from Canada, not the New York region. They were in their traditional Mid-Atlantic flyway.

If your curiosity about 1549 is insatiable, Fly By Wire is worth a read, if for no other reason than to inform what you think about the Boeing vs. Airbus debate.

Comments (14)

My big question is this: Why are the Airbus checklists so long winded that these two extremely experienced and talented airmen did not activate the "Ditching" system. This accident will not be the last to require a three minute drill after takeoff. Kudos to the crew - But let's make sure we learn something new.

Posted by: Keith Butler | November 15, 2009 1:58 AM    Report this comment

I refuse to read anything William Langewiesche writes about aviation, no matter who his father is, after that absolutely execrable Vanity Fair piece he wrote last year about the 2005 midair in Brazil. That anyone would still consider him a "journalist" after essentially inventing a whole story about the crash (and not bothering to interview any of the survivors) just boggles my mind.

Posted by: Chris Lawson | November 16, 2009 1:06 PM    Report this comment

I once had to put a small aircraft in a muddy field due to engine failure at 30 feet AGL on departure. I can assure you that there is no time to reference the proper checklists, and you'd best have the important stuff memorized. I didn't secure the engine as specified in the checklist, but we got the job done and landed without a scratch on ourselves or the airplane. What matters is to fly the airplane, and walk away from the crash. Sully and Skiles did an exemplary job of this. A person who is critical of them for not following the checklist simply hasn't been there (or seen a recent checklist - how is it a new 172 has a checklist the size of a small paperback and an older one it's 4 pages?) As for Airbus, they deserve credit for building a plane that could take a ditching, no more, no less.

Posted by: Josh Johnson | November 17, 2009 11:30 AM    Report this comment

Those who read Flying magazine and what I suppose is the much fewer number of us who read Vertiflite (quarterly magazine of the American Helicopter Society), are aware of controversies in these publications re fly by wire systems. A Flying reader wrote that a computer programming error in a FBW system can lie for years like a coiled snake, before striking out. A highly respected helicopter design engineer, writing in Vertiflite this past year, likewise put down FBW. My argument is that advanced ideas, like the Sikorski X2 helicopter, would not be possible without FBW. Did FBW enable Captain Sullenburger and First Officer Skiles to ditch their Airbus more easily than they would have, if they were flying a Boeing? Never thought of that. This Christmas I'd like to treat myself to Mr. L's book.

Posted by: Alex Kovnat | November 18, 2009 8:40 AM    Report this comment

Agreed - from the extract I read I think he writes well but its a little out of left field - it sounds like he was sick of hearing people bag FBW and saw this as a chance to make a point. Sounds a bit obscure to me. IMHO FBW is AOK aside from my thought sometimes that on large aircraft it should have a fail mode in which basic control can be effected wirelessly with battery powered components.

Posted by: john hogan | November 19, 2009 8:13 AM    Report this comment

I don't find it all that surprising that we're now hearing that Sullenberger is taking issue with Langewiesche's book. A while back I picked up a copy of "Inside the Sky" and was first intrigued with his perspective on flying, but the book lacked focus and began to discuss airline disasters. In discussing Air India Flight 855, an apparent spacial-disorientation disaster, the author stated that the captain's rudder inputs were puzzling as the rudder can never be used to turn an airplane. I read this section over and over, and tried every angle, but could come up with no other conclusion than that the author saw an airplane's rudder as a vestigial flight control performing no apparent function. I've never flown a 747 like the aircraft in question, but the airplanes I do fly require the pilot's use of the rudder for all maneuvering. After reading this, I was so put-off by the book which I was already tiring of, that I put it down and never finished it. I can only imagine that Langewiesche takes this lack of understanding into his other works on aviation.

Posted by: Ryan Lunde | November 19, 2009 9:28 AM    Report this comment

While the discussion of FBW and all the rest is interesting, the fact of the matter is that Capt. Sullenberger had the basic skill, judgment and brains to react to the problem correctly, and fly the airplane into the water in such a way that everyone walked away.

You have to ask what other crews might have done who do not have the same experience of actually flying an aircraft? Especially when their company's policies actually discourage them from hand flying the airplane.

Posted by: THOMAS OLSEN | November 19, 2009 9:52 AM    Report this comment

While checklists are supposed to be the "best thinking available in written form about how to do it" (My own quick-description)... it still remains fact that they are usually compiled by engineers and lawyers that are armchair-pilots with time on their hands...not a seasoned pilot with a new and unique never-before-faced-reality with life-and-death hanging in the balance. As I professional pilot of 40 years I do not think it "heroic" to do correctly what one has been trained to do. But I do consider it the pinnacle of professionalism to have handled things like Capt. Sullenberger and his Crew did as WELL AS THEY DID IT! They should be an inspiration to us all to strive for such professionalism, and Langewieche should stick to writing for fashion magazines.

Posted by: George Horn | November 19, 2009 10:40 AM    Report this comment

Throughout Langewiesche's writing, his observations are nuanced with an underlying disdain or disparagement of the skills and talents required to pilot a jetliner. He makes this explicit with his comment "the best and the brightest have never chosen to become airline pilots...". Elsewhere on Avweb, his bio says that he "left Flying magazine to find work as a professional pilot." From a summary of his ratings in the FAA database it can be inferred that he achieved at best limited success in that endeavor. Sour grapes?

Posted by: Barratt Patton | November 19, 2009 1:58 PM    Report this comment

Writers write - Pilots Fly. I never met anyone who got into professional aviation because they thought it was easy.

Certainly even when the prestige was at its maximum and salaries were high, not all pilots made it to retirement.

Most pilots I ever met were motivated to do the job because they were doing what they wanted to do. I have know pilots who had to have other businesses to keep their flying jobs.

Pilots spend their professional careers proving that they have the knowledge and experience to do the job. Some are geniuses, I met a few of them.

For the rest of us, I hope I can do the job the best it can be done and be a responsible member of my profession. The rest is bovine excrement.

Posted by: THOMAS OLSEN | November 19, 2009 5:24 PM    Report this comment

I have enjoyed some of Langewiesche's writing but would say he considers his audience to be the informed, lay public, not pilots.

As for Sully and Airbus, I don't think it mattered what type plane he flew. I'd guess this wasn't his first departure out of LGA, and had TEB and the Hudson out his left window many times. Every pilot thinks about where he or she is going to go if the motor quits, and a part of his brain had already decided the outcome of the flight before he even woke up that morning.

Posted by: Dave Hightower | December 11, 2009 2:03 PM    Report this comment

Ryan, the rudder comment is basically correct for airliners. In fact, though most private pilots are taught that Va (maneuvering speed) is the maximum speed at which full control movements can be made without overstressing the airframe, such a speed does not exist for airliners. Hence the controversy about some AA training that resulted in an Airbus shedding its tail ex JFK back in 2001. Rudder is used during take-off and landing, but not much in between, and never major inputs as the fin just can't take the loads. An engineer would have to tell us how much heavier the aircraft would be if it could. My problem with the Airbus (my current equipment) is not that it has FBW or a sidestick, it is that hand flying it feels like flying a wet sponge. I am sure all hand inputs go through the engineering offices in Toulouse for approval.... I would also prefer that the controls moved when the autopilot does something, but that is another discussion.

Posted by: Peter Buckley | February 16, 2011 1:23 PM    Report this comment

Peter, interesting you should bring this up. Since I wrote my comment above, I have sat in the cockpit of an airbus, manipulated the controls, and chatted with a good friend of mine who flies them. His reaction to the feel of it when hand flying mirrors yours. Also, I recently read McClellan's blog regarding maneuvering speed and the American crash. I've got a better understanding of large aircraft and their rudders now, but I remain disenchanted with the Langewiesche book I read.

Posted by: Ryan Lunde | February 16, 2011 2:38 PM    Report this comment

@"...Sullenberger and F/O Jeffrey Skiles did everything right"...? Let's see: Sully was yakking on his cell while taxiing. A violation of the sterile cockpit rule. During LO, he was gawking the view. Another violation. His famous "...beautiful view of the Hudson today..." distracted Skiles, the guy actually flying the plane (and hence the reason for them barreling through the flock of geese they could have eaisly avoided). Here's my partial list of Sully's further screw-ups: didn't immediately head back to LGA (could have easily made it); didn't declare 'May Day'; forgot his call number (Cactus 1549, not 1539), used wrong frequency, said he was going one way, went another; spent time starting APU (it started automatically), didn't convert surplus speed into altitude; took control of the aircraft (the flying is the easy part); directed Skiles to undertake a 're-light' procedure reserved for 30,000' and above; didn't advise cabin what was going on (“Brace for impact” wasn't nearly enough); forgot that you land INTO the wind; forgot to hit the ditch switch (which would have closed off outside ports and eliminated a lot of the flooding); didn't fly the 'green dot'; impacted faster and four times harder than the aircraft was designed for; forgot that you extend flaps to land (even overruled Skiles suggestion); and down and pandemonium reigned, he forgot to use his cell to call 911 and advise what was what. But he did call his wife. Still think those guys did everything right?

Posted by: Dave Brough | March 29, 2011 9:07 AM    Report this comment

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