Monday, February 09, 2009

The Last of His Kind?

As US Air Captain Chesley Sullenberger III makes the media rounds, New York magazine wonders if the hero of Flight 1549 is "The Last of His Kind"--the experienced, unflappable pilot who can get handle any situation, including a ditching in the Hudson River.

Over the course of 2,500 words, writer Robert Kolker postulates that men like Captain Sullenberger may be a dying breed. When "Sully" joined the airline three decades ago, he fit the profle of his generation of pilots, and those came before. Virtually all had military experience; many of them were ex-fighter pilots and combat veterans. Sullenberger was an Air Force Academy grad who spent six years flying F-4 Phantoms before setting his sights on an airline career. He completed his initial qualification in fighters less than two years after our exit from Vietnam.

But as Mr. Kolker describes it, Captain Sullenberger still benefited from years of tactical flying, which places a premium on preparation, flying skills and split-second decision-making. It wasn't quite the "stick-and-rudder" stuff of Chuck Yeager, but close enough. In that era, the airlines paid top dollar for men with the background and experience of a Chesley Sullenberger, grooming them to assume the Captain's seat and provide that professional, reassuring image expected by the airlines--and the flying public.

So how did Sullenberger go from the industry standard to something of an anomaly? The business changed and along with it, so did the men (and women) who filled the cockpits of commercial jetliners:

"Since then, the pilot culture has done almost a 180. The maverick pilot has given way to the professional--the Captain who knows how to put his ego aside and not take unnecessary risks. The change began when the military began downsiziing after Vietnam and its talent pool dried up. The pilots of the military made room for a generation of pilots largely educated in flight schools offering four year degree programs. Candidates racked up flight hours on small commuter plans over Albuquerque and Toledo, not in fighter jets.

The planes also began to change. Where a Vietnam-era pilot could fly more or less by stick and rudder, today’s pilots fly primarily by computer. Sully, for instance, was flying the Airbus 320. On older aircraft, a pilot pulls back on a wheel attached to cables that literally pull the plane up. On an Airbus 320, he pulls back a joystick that sends a signal to the computer’s auto-throttle. If he’s doing it wrong, the computer often corrects him, thrusting if he doesn’t do it soon enough, never stalling if he pulls back too hard. Takeoff has preprogrammed speeds; the pilot just moves a lever into a notch. Practically everything about the Airbus assumes the human factor to be the most dangerous thing about the flight. Incredibly, you can go on autopilot from as low as 100 feet in the air. Although some pilots worry about overreliance on technology and the distractions it can cause, most like a tricked-out plane. Still, there’s no getting around the fact that automation has taken control away from pilots.

Of course, there's an element of truth in these observations, but Kolker's piece does create something of a false comparison between "old school" pilots like Captain Sullenberger, and those who earned their wings outside the military. Fact is, the airlines' safety record has never been stronger, despite the pressures of industry deregulation, years of financial problems--and the influx of "civilian pilots."

Indeed, other factors that have been instrumental in making commercial flying as safe as it is. The article mentions Crew Resource Management or CRM, which (interestingly enough) became a part of aviation training about the same time that Sullenberger signed on with U.S. Air. CRM, which grew out of a 1979 NASA workshop on flight safety, emphasizes interpersonal communication, leadership and decision-making in the cockpit.

Today, crew resource management is mandatory for commercial and military pilots, so Captain Sullenberger was intimately familiar with the concept and its objectives. Still, his expertise extended far beyond CRM training. As a trained accident investigator and air safety expert, Sullenberger understood the factors that can cause manageable situations to spiral out of control. His interaction with Co-pilot Jeffrey Skiles, the cabin crew (and air traffic controllers) is a textbook example of coordination, delegation and decision-making.

Yet, for all the extraordinary skill exhibited in the ditching of US Air Flight 1549, it is not beyond the skill of other commercial pilots. When Katie Couric of CBS asked him how many other pilots could have accomplished the feat, Sullenberger replied "thousands." That may be an attempt at modesty, but its also reflects his knowledge and experience of in the world of commercial aviation, and the high standards still required for those who occupy the cockpits.

As we noted in a recent post, some professional pilots have suggested that they're really paid for about two minutes of work a year. Not the routine take-offs and landings, or the flights from one airport to another. Instead, they refer to those brief, sometimes terrifying moments that require snap judgements and may--or may not be--described in the flight checklists.

It was that sort of situation that confronted the crew of Flight 1549 last month, just moments after takeoff from La Guardia Airport. Elapsed time between the multiple bird strike and the jet's successful ditching in the Hudson? About three minutes.

Sullenberger and his crew have been rightfully described as heroes, and their actions will be studied by aviation analysts and safety experts for years to come. But does that make the US Air Captain the last of a vanishing breed?

Thankfully, no.


lgude said...

I think you are right to dispose of this trope as you did the MSM meme that the Captain Sullenberger was incompetent. To find Americans with the right stuff, one need look no further than the young men and women who made General Petraeus's success in Iraq possible - despite the lack of appreciation in certain quarters who find their success an embarrassment. Or the brilliant young people who are pioneering new territory on the Internet. As an expatriate I have come to appreciate America's resilience and strengths. I am agnostic about the efficacy of the stimulus but not about America's powers of recuperation.

Ed Rasimus said...

One need only spend a bit of time with the current generation of fighter pilots to be dissuaded of the notion that we are anywhere near at the end of the evolutionary chain of men (and women) with "The Right Stuff."

These guys and gals may not face the horrific combat losses of our "good ol' days" but they are well-trained, professional, competent and dedicated. We are in good hands--at least at the company grade and junior field grade level of tactical aviation.

I cannot speak with authority about the rank and file of the airline industry, but I'm inclined to lean toward an "affirmative action" sort of negativism.