All Sully, All The Time

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This Friday will be the one year anniversary of US Airways' ditching of Flight 1549 into the Hudson and I just realized that I have contracted a fully metastasized, CDC-certified case of Sully fatigue. The only known treatment is…you guessed it, disgorge more pixels about Sully.

The occasion is TLC's documentary on the Flight 1549 ditching which is making the rounds this week. Check for a schedule on your local cable outlet via this link.

I have to wonder if this is TLC's penance for visiting upon the world the horrid Jon and Kate Gosselin. If so, I'd assign maybe one more round of Hail Marys, not because this new program isn't worthy, but because Jon & Kate Plus 8 was actually a crime against nature.

The doc is called Brace for Impact and as these sorts of things go, I thought it was well above average. Just as it was about to descend into the excruciatingly maudlin, it veered away and we learned some new tidbit. Harrison Ford narrates the piece ably—you'd expect that from a $20 million-per-pix actor—and I found myself wondering if he flew the helicopter used to retrace 1549's path out of LaGuardia. All you see is the back of a gray head in the right seat.

Brace for Impact doesn't add much of substance to the record, but there were interesting vignettes. Just as the icky warning light was about to glow as Sully and wife Lorrie were walking down a country road hand in hand and she asked why all this happened, Sully pulled the breaker. "Because I was on that flight, on that day." No God has plans for me, no divine intervention, just wrong place, wrong time. Let us thank the man for that, if nothing else. Further, I get the strong sense that Sullenberger knows that all this adulation is about us, not him.

One detail I noticed that no one seems to correct. Sullenberger has said on several occasions that the first thing he did was to say "Mayday, Mayday, Mayday." But if he did that, he didn't the key the mic, for the words appear neither in the transcript nor on ATC tapes. As far as I know, the CVR transcript isn't public yet.

There was a segment on flying sailplanes at the Air Force Academy, from whence Sullenberger graduated in 1973. When asked if that glider experience had any bearing on the outcome of Flight 1549, Sullenberger said he didn't know. I'll take that as a no. We in the aviation press have played up this angle to prop up our evergreen notion that learning to fly gliders makes you a better pilot. Personally, I've never subscribed. It makes you a glider pilot and a high-aspect glider has as much in common with a 75-ton fly-by-wire airliner as a go-cart has with an Indy car.

One of the interesting visuals was of the hulk of the A320, sitting wingless in a plastic tent on what seems to be the Jersey side of the river. Although the pans were too brief, you get a passing view of the structural damage done to the tail during touchdown. It looks considerable, suggesting that if the touchdown speed had been a few knots higher or the angle steeper, the outcome might not have been so rosy.

Although the word "incalculable odds" was used in the narration, the percentages were actually in favor of survival of some of the occupants. And not just because of Sullenberger's skill. The water was calm, it was a clear day and there was plenty of boat traffic to effect rapid rescue. What was totally improbable is that everyone would survive both the impact and the cold water. The law of averages suggests that some percentage would die because…just because.

That leads to what was the best part of the documentary for me. And that was the number of people who were not affected because no one died. At a summer gathering of some of the survivors, the participants drew a family tree of all the people who didn't have to get a call explaining that a father, a mother, a brother or an uncle died in a plane crash. The interconnections ran to the hundreds, but to the tens of thousands when all 155 survivors are considered.

We don't think much about that, chiefly because the crew of Flight 1549 did something that seems so rare today: Its job.

Comments (19)

Got the link, thanks. Looks like they inserted the Mayday editorially after the fact. Not clear if it's on the transcript originally.

If you listen to the tapes, it's possible it was stepped on during the heading assignment. Not that any of this matters other than being a curiosity.

Posted by: Paul Bertorelli | January 12, 2010 12:36 PM    Report this comment

I think Capt. Sullenberger is a hero, but not for his superb flying skills as most accounts seem to focus upon.

I think he became a hero when he walked the cabin several times after the aircraft was down to be sure that everyone else was out.

Heroism generally attaches when one conciously puts themselves in greater danger to do their job or for the benefit of others.

Posted by: Richard Jenkins | January 13, 2010 10:02 AM    Report this comment

Not to pick nits here regarding the comparison of Gliders to Airbuses, but Indy Cars and Go Carts actually have a lot in common. To the extent that many, including seven time F-1 Champion Michael Schumacher, train on high performance carts in the off season. Always look forward to your column.

Posted by: jan burden | January 13, 2010 11:46 AM    Report this comment

Okay, fair enough. Make it garbage trucks and Indy Cars. (Now someone is gonna say garbage trucks actually run at Indy...)

Posted by: Paul Bertorelli | January 13, 2010 11:53 AM    Report this comment

Sully says he does not know if his flying sailplanes 37 years ago affected the outcome of Flight 1549. Nor did he say, as he might have done, that he took up gliding at the USAF Academy because it THEN made him a better pilot - but I will bet that is why he did it. Paul never asked.

Wikipedia tells us that Sully started gliding at 14 and has even now a commercial glider pilots's licence. Sully was being non-committal about lots more gliding than Paul cared to ask about - enough that Paul could (if he had known) have taken his answer as a yes ?

I took up gliding at the RAF College in 1959, not because it would make me a glider pilot but because I wanted very much to graduate as a military pilot. Flying training was serious hard work and you were always closely scrutinised by experienced men who could at any time take this marvellous life away from you.

Gliding was not so different (well - 550HP different) ... except that the winch-launch was more exciting that your normal take-off, every climb to height was just off the stall, you did not climb at all if you were not deeply familiar with some aspects of meteorology, no fumes, no noise (except the management data being whispered by your wings), no terse correctives from the other seat - and every landing a forced landing, and a spot landing to boot.

My gliding provided me with lots of what Sully calls his "small, regular deposits in this bank of experience", when my account was still very new.

Posted by: R L S Butler | January 13, 2010 6:02 PM    Report this comment

I, and it seems like many of you are "Sullied Out". But, that's not my point. Wasn't there a successful water ditching in the Pacific between Hawaii and the west coast by Pan Americanin a B377?
sometime in the 50's. Seems my menory was it threw a prop, as was it was noted for, burned off enough gas and landed near some rescue ships. I don't think there were very many injuries and no one was lost. I have read many times that Sully's was the first with no injuries.

Posted by: jerry govesky | January 14, 2010 12:08 PM    Report this comment

As a "well-seasoned"(aka old fart) pilot with well over a thousand hours flying and instructing in F-4 Phantoms, about a thousand hours in the A320 and in possession of a commercial glider certificate I think I can understand what allowed Sully to pull off his outstanding feat of airmanship.

Flying gliders well requires extreme focus and a high awareness of what the aircraft is doing and going to do at any given moment. This requires the ability to recognize the micro-meteorology conditions in a constantly changing airmass in which you are flying. Given all that, very precise aircraft control movements must be exercised to derive maximum performance from the aircraft. When flying gliders you have to be constantly looking for, identifying and evaluating possible off-airport landing sites.
(to be continued)

Posted by: William G. Hart | January 14, 2010 12:40 PM    Report this comment

Equally if not more important to the process was the skill Sully acquired while flying and fighting the Phantom. Learning and properly employing sound energy management techniques was essential to successfully employing the Phantom as a dogfighter.

In ACM you have absolutely no business looking inside the cockpit while engaged with the enemy. You have to maneuver the aircraft for maximum performance solely by the sound and feel of the airframe and engines interacting with the airmass. Apply too little G and you waste energy and you lose. Apply too much G and you waste energy and you lose. Apply G too slowly and you waste energy and you lose. Apply G too rapidly and you waste energy and you lose. Don't put your lift vector where it needs to be when you apply G and you waste energy and you lose.
(to be continued)

Posted by: William G. Hart | January 14, 2010 12:41 PM    Report this comment

Whether he recognizes it or not, Sully's experience in both gliders and fighters made him the right person with the right skill set at the right time at the right place in the right airplane. The flying public should not expect to be so lucky the next time.

I say the right airplane because the Airbus A320 constantly calculates and displays a "Green Dot" on the airspeed tape in the PFD. It gives pilots instant access to an accurate airspeed to fly for L/D Max.. A few knots off L/D Max. during glide ordinarily doesn't make a lot of difference unless you are trying to miss obstacles, really stretch a glide or have a restricted length landing area.

I don't want to re-ignite any Boeing/Airbus controversy here as I have flown both and they are both fine products. I just wish AOA indicators would become standard equipment in every commercial cockpit as they don't require constant recalculations and interpretations to give the pilot critical performance data like L/D Max.

Posted by: William G. Hart | January 14, 2010 12:42 PM    Report this comment

My grandson is a student instructor pilot in the Air Force Academy's glider program. The Sullenberger program enabled me to see the glider hanger and the flight pattern used by the cadets. I appreciated that very much.

Posted by: Dale Johnson | January 14, 2010 1:00 PM    Report this comment

When I read this I knew the majority of replies would be about glider flying. Was mentally preparing my own comments about former F1 champion Ayerton Senna's relating karts to F1, but somebody neat me to it.
I dont know about glider experience correlating to flying an Airbus - I fly an RV-4 homebuilt. I do know that my own glider flying experience makes me a better Gen Av pilot. Interpreting weather, confidence and decisiveness, and better stick and rudder skills all come from flying gliders.
I know power pilots who are terrified at the prospect of an engine failure. Learning to fly gliders and doing a couple of land outs would drammatically increase their confidence.

Posted by: Mike Wills | January 14, 2010 1:53 PM    Report this comment

You can see looking at the animation posted by Mike Danko on Jan 11, 2010 that the controller was giving Cactus1549 a vector to heading 270 at the same time Mayday, mayday, mayday was transmitted by 1549. This vector to 270 was not captured on the CVR transcript and the Mayday's were not captured on the ATC recordings thus they stepped on each other.

Posted by: Dennis Pharoah | January 14, 2010 4:26 PM    Report this comment

I was reading the NTSB Transcript and I noticed the passenger briefing.

flotation devices.
your seat cushion serves as a flotation device,
to remove your cushion, (pla)- take it with you to
the nearest usable exit, when exiting the-[sound
similar to power interruption 15:07:01] place
both arms through the straps and hug it to your

I wonder how many people if any left with their flotation device?

Posted by: Dennis Pharoah | January 14, 2010 4:30 PM    Report this comment

I watched the documentary, and what I found happening to me was vivid recollections of my own engine-out experience (threw a rod through the top of the case) in my 172, at low altitude, almost 6 years ago. That it also was a successful landing has to be attributed to the totality of my experience (which includes only a couple hours of gliders but a couple thousand hours of SE, about a third of that in 172s), and I think that's what Sully means when he doesn't pinpoint one particular aspect of his experience. Then there's a certain amount of luck, and maudlin as it may seem to others, God's decision that now's not the time.

Posted by: Cary Alburn | January 14, 2010 5:44 PM    Report this comment

Talk to me...

Posted by: Patty Haley | January 14, 2010 7:43 PM    Report this comment

Anyone else bothered by the comment about the Hudson River just after takeoff? Is this a sterile cockpit?

Posted by: MARK LEMEL | January 14, 2010 8:51 PM    Report this comment

Golda Mier one said "Don't be so humble, you are not that great." I think that about says it all for the glider pilot community.

Posted by: Patty Haley | January 17, 2010 12:02 PM    Report this comment

Golda Mier one said "Don't be so humble, you are not that great." I think that about says it all for the glider pilot community.

Posted by: Patty Haley | January 17, 2010 12:02 PM    Report this comment

I have had the opportunity to ask Sully directly the question. He does not believe that his glider experience had an impact on the success of the event. What was more applicable in his opinion was that on every flight (including this one) he ran through a mental check list in his mind what he would do with a duel engine failure shortly after departure, starting with APU on, establish best glide speed and then decide where he was going to land. Good advice for us all!

Posted by: STEVEN HAMERSLAG | January 18, 2010 9:42 AM    Report this comment

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