Flight 1549: You Were Expecting Maybe Shrieks of Panic?

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When I was editing the ATC tapes for yesterday's podcast on the USAir Flight 1549 ditching, two things occurred to me: One, I really miss New York controllers and, two, would anyone in the mainstream media notice how seamlessly the New York TRACON controller handled the emergency, even if his actions didn't really impact the outcome?

Someone did notice. On Thursday evening's World News, ABC's Charlie Gibson commented to John Nance about how calm and collected everyone sounded on the frequency. (As if he expected blood curdling shrieks and uncontrolled sobbing.) In aviation, we've come to expect this level of professionalism because that's the accepted standard of performance. We like to think that enforced calm in the cockpit is an attempt to stave off panic so we can think clearly. Secretly, I think when a pilot finds himself in extremis, there's a little switch in the brain connected to the PTT that says, "Oh, geez, I gotta make this sound good on the tape." That way, when they find our soiled underwear in the wreckage, they'll at least say, "well, at least he sounded like a steely-eyed missile man."

The point Gibson missed for lack of aviation knowledge and because ABC imagines the audience to be too unsophisticated to understand, is how skillful the TRACON was in coordinating between three facilities, the departure radar position, LaGuardia tower and Teterboro tower. Then the controller had the good sense to stay off the frequency while the crew worked out its options.

From the time of 1549's first call, the controller told LaGuardia tower to stop departures within 15 seconds. It took the TRACON controller and the Teterboro tower controller another 15 seconds to make runway 1 at TEB available for an emergency landing. The TEB local said "…runway 1, that's good." A done deal, the whole thing in under two minutes. The rest was just waiting on the crew to follow through. It's tempting to once again lionize the people involved in this accident, this time the controllers. But the truth is, they do this sort of thing every day. What's exceptional about it is that it's not exceptional.

I spent much of my flying career in New York airspace talking to New York TRACON. My own pucker moment occurred about 20 years ago when I was flying a Navajo from Atlantic City to Hartford one snowy night. Just past JFK, a turbocharger hose blew off the right engine, causing a partial power loss. While I was wading Da Nile trying to figure out which engine had tanked, the controller shooed a couple of Kennedy arrivals out the way and coordinated a clearance to land on any runway at Farmingdale. He was ahead of me; he understood enough from "engine problem" to start putting a plan in place. If all that took 20 seconds from my initial radio call, I'd be surprised. Listening to the tapes yesterday, it's obvious and encouraging that nothing has changed.

Given the dreary daily reports of malfeasance, misconduct and downright incompetence, isn't it nice to see a professional doing the job he's trained to do? It's something we all expect, but lately, we haven't seen much of.

Comments (11)

Having seen both sides of this particular coin (with a PP-ASEMEL and some time as an employee of a 'Major News Gathering Organization' (who shall remain nameless), I can tell you that another driving force behind the surprise behind Mr. Gibson's response is the long tradition in News that "Bad News is Good News and Good News is Bad News". They don't sell advertizing minutes when nothing exciting is happening. They *WANTED* to have the blood curdling shrieks and uncontrolled sobbing because, well, tears sell, and calm professionalism doesn't. This is why there was Up To The Second coverage when the JetBlue Airbus went into LAX with the cocked nosewheel. It was DRAMA! There could be BLOOD! TEARS! JUST THINK OF THE FAMILIES! GET THE COPTERS OUT THERE NOW! This type of mindset isn't, by any stretch, limited to ABC. There isn't a news gathering organization out there that wouldn't have given their collective first borns to have had enough notice to get some of their Eye In The Sky TrafficCopters out there to get Live! Footage! of the aircraft as it was going down in the Hudson. That's why you always have so many 'Breaking News' events that would even preempt the latest Survivor. Tears sell. Good news is Bad News.

Posted by: Roger Lee | February 6, 2009 3:20 PM    Report this comment

Yeah, I miss the NY controllers, too. I got to know them pretty well as I commuted from Solberg VOR to BAF in Massachusetts, same route, same time of day. I was crossing an approach corridor into Newark one clear day when a 747 loomed off my left wing, passed underneath close enough to see the pilots, their faces and what they were wearing. I called in with the urgent news that "A 747 heavy just went by 500 feet below me." The calm answer? "Good. Keep watching. You're going to see a lot more of them."

Posted by: ROBIN WHITE | February 7, 2009 8:18 AM    Report this comment

We've got a well-trained group of controllers across the entire country, actually. In this case the guy's equipment worked flawlessly (communication with other facilities) and he obviously knew what to do. Well done.

Posted by: Mike Massimini | February 8, 2009 8:16 PM    Report this comment

Like Robin White, I got a rather stoic response to my comment about a LAN CHILE DC10 passing underneath my C-172 while flying over JFK in the early eighties.
The controller, responding to my query, simply said "Five hundred feet separation."

Posted by: Carl Willis | February 9, 2009 8:21 AM    Report this comment

I liked the fact that NY Departure kept calling out distances and direction to possible landing sites even after they dropped below radar contact. He didn't expect a response as the crew certainly had their hands full, but he used his only tool -the radio- to continue to offer all the assistance he could provide until there were no other options. Good job, guys.

Posted by: A Richie | February 9, 2009 9:33 AM    Report this comment

If there is anything I miss about being an (now retired) Air Traffic Controller (yes, in caps) it is the high-dependency environment that exists at all times but especially when the poop hits the fan. Like a special ops team, it's as if a switch is turned on and all the players get into dead-serious mode in a millisecond. Unless you have been there you CANNOT imagine it. Neither Katie Couric nor any other non-player will ever know that feeling. Too bad for them. And thanks for the recognition Paul.

Posted by: Bob Merrilees | February 9, 2009 3:38 PM    Report this comment

I too (retired) ATC second the statements, memories of Mr. Bob Merrilees above. Been there, done that...

Posted by: KD Sim | February 9, 2009 10:21 PM    Report this comment

I kind of miss the NY controllers too. The best controllers tend to be in the busiest facilities... no disrespect intended and exceptions are the rule. The tough part is that they can be as quick to scold malfeasance as they are to close with a cheerful "Ciao". Always memorable for this former NY area pilot.

Posted by: BILL WATSON | February 10, 2009 2:40 PM    Report this comment

"attempt to stave off panic" or "make this sound good on the tape": I have a different impression. October 12 at 4000 feet I lost all my engine (singular) with a broken crankshaft in a plane much smaller than 1549. From a routine descent to my home airport, I went into 'full pilot' mode. My job was to not make anything worse while making an off airport landing. Panic would have made things worse. Poor communication could have made things worse. In 'full pilot' (or checkride) mode I wanted to communicate clearly, to ATC, other planes around me, and my passenger. After flying the plane, of course. Maybe I sounded too calm, because this particular controller pretty much ignored me. (Many other controllers have saved my bacon in the past, so I appreciate them all.) After a bumpy but uneventful landing in a farmer's field, we got out of the plane and wondered 'How will we get home?' The whole experience was eerily calm, but I think that's part of being a successful pilot.

Posted by: DON MACKENZIE | February 10, 2009 2:59 PM    Report this comment

I can only imagine what the ATC will sound like when someone comes out with a made-for-TV movie about this.
FL1549- "We're going into the Hudson."
ATC- (Raised, high-pitched voice) "Oh, God! No! Everyone on the frequency, clear the area! We have an emergency! Clear all runways! Call the police and the Coast Guard! Oh, the humanity! Stay with us, Cactus 1549, for the love of all things sacred!" (Uncontrollable sobbing on the open mic)

Posted by: Jonathan Harger | February 10, 2009 4:30 PM    Report this comment

I agree wholeheartedly with Jonathan Harger. The main difference between a 'News Gathering Organization' and a 'Made for TV Movie' is that at least a 'News Gathering Organization' has to at least pretend to present 'factual' information. Hollywood is not so restrained.

You know, I'd love to see the Broadway Charlie Victor Romeo treatment given to this incident.

Posted by: Roger Lee | February 10, 2009 5:03 PM    Report this comment

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