Thursday, January 15, 2009

Two Minutes a Year

Every now and then, someone suggests that the era of the pilot will soon be over. With improvements in aircraft, flight control and navigation systems, they claim, future airliners will be operated entirely by remote control.

Thankfully, that day is still a ways off--and the 146 passengers of U.S. Air Flight 1549 would probably agree. Thursday afternoon, in the skies over Manhattan, the skill of a cockpit crew saved them from almost certain death, after a double bird-strike crippled their Airbus A320 passenger jet.

Consider this scenario: moments after takeoff from LaGuardia Airport, the aircraft flies into a flock of geese. Both engines are shredded; the A320 is now without power and in desperate need of a place to land. The Captain realizes he can't make it back to LaGuardia and tells air traffic controllers he's heading for Teterboro Airport, located just across the Hudson River in New Jersey.

But it quickly becomes apparent that even Teterboro is out of reach, so Captain Chesley Sullenberger makes a fateful decision to land in the river. Clearing the George Washington Bridge by less than 1,000 feet, Sullenberger and his First Officer flawlessly ditch the A320 in the Hudson. The jet skids to a stop--fully intact--and the cabin crew begins to evacuate the passengers. Ferries serving lower Manhattan divert from their crossings and rescue passengers and crew, lined up on the airliner's wings.

Everyone walked away.

Captain Sullenberger has been rightfully called a hero. A veteran of more than 19,000 flying hours in military and civilian aircraft, Sullenberger also runs is own aviation safety consulting firm in California. He has been a U.S. Air pilot for almost 29 years. His consummate skills clearly made the difference for the passengers and crew of Flight 1549.

But the list of heroes doesn't end with with Captain Sullenberger. Flying an airliner in an emergency is a two-person job, and Sullenberger's co-pilot deserves a lot of credit for getting that Airbus onto the only available runway--the Hudson River. Ditto for the three flight attendants; evacuating 146 passengers from a plane that has just ditched is no easy feat, but they got everyone out of the cabin and onto the wing, where they were rescued by ferry crews. The passengers also deserve praise for remaining calm under extraordinarily difficult conditions.

A few years ago, I heard someone chide an airline pilot about the "ease" of his job. "You're bus drivers," he told the pilot. "The autopilot flies the plane. You just taxi out and taxi in."

The pilot didn't dispute the fact that flying is easier now than in decades past. "I get paid for about two minutes a year," he replied, referring to those moments that require a highly trained pilot to make split-second, life-and-death decisions.

Those of us in the flying public are barely aware of those moments. Ninety-nine percent of the time, professionals like Captain Sullenberger and his co-pilot make the right call, averting potential tragedy, and delivering passengers safely to their destination.

An executive salary for "two minutes" of real flying a year? Sounds like a bargain to us.


Ed Rasimus said...

A concrete example to counter the bleating of the socialist and anti-free-market crowd when they complain that the CEO makes 2000 times what the assembly-line worker makes or the pilot make 40 times what the baggage handler makes.

It brings new meaning to that throw-away line about, "in case of a water landing your seat cushion may be used as a floatation device..."

reinkefj said...

May I point out that perhaps there was some luck involved, when the pilot "placed" the plane down on the Hudson River. (I don't think it qualifies as "ditching", "splashing", or "crash landing"; too neatly done.) I watched with horror as the politicians arrived to tells us how "heroic" the police, fire, and other government responders were. Having watching the early coverage, the Ferry Captains were there "long" before any of the government troops were on site. The ferry passengers pitched right in. Business suits and all. I think those folks deserve the lion's share of the credit for saving those passengers. All the media reports these people were way down the list for credit. That annoys me. And, I think it hides the true American spirit.