The heroics of Captain Sully and the “Miracle on the Hudson”

Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger was the US Airways captain who guided his Airbus A320 into the Hudson River on January 15, 2009, after a flock of Canada geese knocked out both engines. Together with the majority of my colleagues, I have the utmost respect for Captain Sullenberger. But that’s just it: respect. It’s not adoration, and I’ve always been disappointed at how the media and, more recently, Hollywood have managed to glamorize and misrepresent what happened that day. As the public has been led to understand it, Sully saved the lives of everybody on board through nerves of steel and superhuman flying skills. The truth isn’t quite so romantic.

I was getting a haircut (what’s left of it) one afternoon, not long after the accident, when Nick the barber asked what I did for a living. Almost any talk of piloting at some point turns to the saga of Sully-upon-Hudson, and this was no exception. Nick grew starry-eyed. “Man, that was something,” he said. “How did the guy land on the water like that?” Nick wasn’t looking for a literal answer, but I gave him one anyway. “Pretty much the same way he’d landed 12,000 other times in his career,” was my response. There was silence after that, which I took to mean that Nick was either silently impressed or thinking “what an asshole.”

I was exaggerating but eager to make a point: that the how-to of gliding into water isn’t especially difficult. The straightforwardness of water landings is one of the reasons pilots don’t even train for them in simulators. Another reason is that having to land in water will always be the byproduct of something inherently more dreadful—a fire, multiple engine failure, or some other catastrophic malfunction. That is the crux of the emergency, not the resultant landing.

When the ill-fated jet took off from New York’s La Guardia airport, first officer Jeffrey Skiles had been at the controls. When the engines quit, at a little more than 2,000 feet, captain Sullenberger took over. (There’s no reason a copilot can’t continue flying in an emergency, but in this case most of the primary instruments on Skiles’ side of the cockpit failed from loss of power. Sullenberger took the controls because, really, he had to.)

Determining a place to land was urgent to say the least. A turn-back to La Guardia was deemed too risky, as was continuing westward toward Teterboro Airport in New Jersey. The choice, then, was either a crash landing in the middle of one of the most built-up cities in the world, or a ditching in the ice-cold Hudson. The latter was hardly ideal, but it was clearly the better option and would have to do.

From there, Sullenberger would adjust the plane’s pitch to maintain an optimal glide speed. The trickiest part of the whole thing would be calculating the correct speed and altitude to begin the flare — when to pitch the nose up and break the descent. Flare too early and the plane could stall or drop hard into the water. Keeping the wings level would also be critical, lest the plane flip, roll inverted, or otherwise break up, with certain loss of life.

Well done. Just the same, I’m uneasy at calling anyone a hero. Nothing they did was easy, and a successful outcome was by no means guaranteed. But they did what they had to do, what they were trained to do, and what, presumably, any other crew would have done in that same situation.

And seldom has the role of luck been adequately acknowledged. Flight 1549 was stricken in daylight, and in reasonably good weather that allowed the crew to visually choose a landing spot. Had the engines quit on a day with low visibility, or over a crowded part of the city beyond gliding distance to the river, the result was going to be an all-out catastrophe. No amount of skill would matter. They needed to be good, but they needed to be lucky, too. They were both.

Sullenberger, to his credit, has been duly humble, acknowledging the points I make above. People pooh-pooh this as false modesty or self-effacing charm, when really he’s just being honest. He also has highlighted the unsung role played by his first officer. There were two pilots on board, and both needed to rise to the occasion. And let’s not forget the flight attendants, whose actions were no less commendable.

There’s little harm in celebrating the survival of 155 people, but terms like “hero” and “miracle” shouldn’t be thrown around lightly. A miracle describes an outcome that cannot be rationally explained. Everything that happened on January 15th, 2009, can be rationally explained. Passengers owe their survival not to the supernatural, but to four very earthly factors. They were, in descending order (pardon the pun): luck, professionalism, skill, and technology.

A hero, meanwhile, describes a person who accepts a great personal sacrifice, up to and including injury or death, for the benefit of somebody else. I’d never suggest that Sullenberger and Skiles were merely “doing their jobs.” It was far beyond that. But I didn’t see heroics; I saw an outstanding execution of difficult tasks in the throes of a serious emergency.

And there’s a longstanding unfairness to the whole pilots-as-heroes thing that gets under my skin. Over the years, there have been countless aviators who, confronted by sudden and harrowing danger, performed admirably, with just as much skill and resolve as can ever be hoped for. But they weren’t as lucky. By virtue of this and nothing more, they and many of their passengers perished.

And if we’re going to lavish praise on men like Sullenberger, who did not perish, what of the others like him whose stories you’ve likely never heard, mainly because their planes didn’t come splashing down alongside the world’s media capital.

I give you Al Haynes, the United Airlines captain who, ably assisted by three other pilots, deftly guided his crippled DC-10 to a crash landing in Sioux City, Iowa, in 1989. A disintegrated engine fan had bled out all three of the plane’s hydraulics systems, resulting in a total loss of flight controls. Using differential engine power to perform turns, all the while battling uncontrollable pitch oscillations, that Haynes and his crew were able to pull off even a semi-survivable landing (112 people were killed; 184 survived) is about as close to a miracle as you can get.

How about Donald Cameron and Claude Ouimet, the pilots of Air Canada flight 797, who managed — barely — to get their burning DC-9 onto the runway in Cincinnati in 1983? It took so much effort to fly the plane that they passed out from exhaustion after touchdown.

A pilot would take a daylight ditching in a river over either of those, no question.

Or consider the predicament facing American Eagle Captain Barry Gottshall and first officer Wesley Greene three months earlier. Moments after takeoff from Bangor, Maine, their Embraer regional jet suffered a freak system failure resulting in full and irreversible deflection of the plane’s rudder. Struggling to maintain control, they returned to Bangor under deteriorating weather. Visibility had fallen to a mile, and as the 37-seater approached the threshold, Gottshall had to maintain full aileron deflection — that is, the control wheel turned to the stops and held there—to keep from yawing into the woods. Theirs was pure seat-of-the-pants improv. A fully deflected rudder? There are no checklists for that one.

In 2016, Clint Eastwood gave us a movie called Sully. All well and good, but why don’t we have a Haynes or a Cameron or a Gottshall movie? How about a John Testrake movie, or one about Bernard Dhellemme? Google them if you need to; their stories are even more incredible than the ones above.

I could go on, but let’s stop there. If you insist on a hero, I suspect there are more to pick from than you thought.


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