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.