Airmanship to Live For: Flight 1549
I suppose we can forgive the mainstream press for having, within the space of a single news cycle, elevated Chesley B. Sullenberger to the rank of sainthood. On the other hand, by any standard, Captain Sullenberger and his FO pulled off a hell of a piece of airmanship on Thursday. We should all hope to do half as well. As I'll bet Sullenberger himself will say when we hear from him, there were two pilots aboard and both deserve kudos. And while we're handing them out, a nod to the cabin crew, too. They train for days like these.
|Photo from Flickr user I'mjustsayin|
What I'll most be interested in learning is how they navigated the decision tree, especially dispensing quickly with the denial phase and accepting that the engines weren't coming back. One photo circulating the web shows the airplane gliding southbound down the river, below the tops of the apartment buildings. Had I seen it in person, the last thing I would have thought is that both engines had crumped.
The graphic shown here — distilled from Flight Aware and clipped from Flickr — shows the flightpath and relative altitudes. The exact position of the reported bird encounter and engine rollback isn't known, but it's probably somewhere past the Cross Bronx Expressway. We're told that the crew or ATC briefly mentioned Teterboro as an option and late news reports suggest a turnback to LGA might have been considered, too. But it's easy to see how Teterboro wouldn't be too appealing from somewhere over the Bronx at 3000 feet. Curiously, the flightpath takes an eastward jink around the George Washington Bridge, whose 800-foot towers obstruct a straight shot at the river. I'll be curious to find out if that's why the airplane jinked that way. Or did the crew make a play back for LaGuardia?
Having been dealt a bad hand, I'm sure the crew was calculating the highest percentage survival choice. For a small airplane, that would almost always be the river. The Hudson's banks are festooned with roads, buildings, boat ramps, railroads and abandoned piers and given the nine-chances-out-of-10 of egressing and surviving a light aircraft ditching, taking the water is a no-brainer. Historically, it's less of a sure bet for airliners and especially jet airliners, whose higher speeds and weights make for high-energy contact with the water. Only one other jet airliner ditching—also in a river—resulted in everyone surviving. Sullenberger and his FO had to make that tradeoff analysis and didn't have much time discuss the pros and cons.
Because there have been so few of them,civil pilots don't train extensively for ditching, if they train at all. Flight manuals for all kinds of aircraft have recommendations for water-landing configurations, but these are largely theoretical and not proven by real-world experience. There's no reliable data to suggest what configurations are best—gear down or up? All the flaps or partial flaps? What speeds to fly? What touchdown attitude works best? Flight 1549's crew had to figure that out on the fly and it looks like they did everything right. Exactly. Moreover, the industry now has a soggy but more or less intact airplane to examine to see how a big hull performs in a water landing—what broke, what didn't? Stitch those findings together with the FDR data and we'll probably learn quite a lot.
But that's for later. For now, let's raise an early-year toast to 1549's crew, the extraordinary response of the boat crews in the area and yes, even the passengers. They kept their wits about them well enough to egress the airplane to live another day. Given the very likely alternatives, that's plenty to cheer about.
Late addition: From the confirmed pedants, of which there seem to be many, we received a flurry of e-mail taking us to task for referring to geese as Canadian Geese rather than Canada Geese. A little trip around the web confirms that either usage is acceptable to describe Branta canadensis. I'll concede that Canada Goose strikes many readers as the proper usage, probably because it's considered the original term. So, take your pick.