As we tend to pass news assignments back and forth at AVweb, I have been drifting in and out of the USAir 1549 story. But as I've covered it from a distance, I've had this nagging feeling: I think I know this guy, Sullenberger. I met him somewhere. When I saw his interview with Katie Couric on 60 Minutes, I thought: I really know this guy.
But I don't. I was channeling Al Haynes, whom I saw speak about 10 years ago at an aviation event I had organized. Haynes, you'll recall, was the Captain of United 232, a DC-10, which suffered an uncontained fan failure enroute from Denver to Chicago on July 19, 1989. The shrapnel took out the DC-10's entire hydraulic system, dealing Haynes a hand every bit as ugly as Sullenberger's. With the able assistance of his FO and a dead heading Captain, Haynes managed a survivable landing at Sioux City, Iowa. Of 256 aboard, 184 survived.
To his everlasting credit, Haynes' real heroism began after the crash. He went on the road for years, skillfully weaving his specific experience during the Flight 232 crash into a riveting narrative on aviation safety in general. It was, he said, his way of giving back to the aviation community what he could not give it on July 19, 1989: 256 survivors. Haynes said, at the time, that he remained troubled by the accident and constantly wondered if there was something he could have done, some overlooked decision that would have saved all aboard. I can only describe his devotion to the memory of those who perished in 232 with one word: spiritual.
I flashed on this while watching Sullenberger describe USAir 1549. He too said he worries that he could have done something more, even though the survival of everyone on that Airbus rates as one of the most remarkable accident outcomes in aviation history. Toward the end of the interview, when Couric asked the inevitable question about being a hero, here's what Sullenberger said when asked how he felt about that.
"I don't feel comfortable embracing it. But I don't want to deny it. I don't want to diminish their thankful feeling toward me by telling them that they're wrong. I am beginning to understand why they might feel that way. Something about this episode has captured people's imagination. I think they want good news. They want to feel hopeful again. If I can help in that way, I will," he said.
Al Haynes said the same thing, perhaps in different words. Like Haynes, Sullenberger is clearly a student of the science of aviation safety. He has given the subject more than a passing glance. I suspect he is soon to continue the remarkable work Haynes began.