Friday, January 16, 2009
Miracle on the Hudson - A Pilot's perspective
It's not often that a commercial airliner turns into a floating life raft.
The Chinese say that this "Year of the OX" is usually tied to good fortune. It certainly was for 155 people on the US Airways Airbus 320 - or perhaps we should call it a "water bus."
I still hold a commercial pilot's license. In emergency training, pilots learn that the most dangerous part of a flight is the take-off. The plane is loaded with fuel and a failed engine during ascent means big trouble --it's easy to stall quickly and lose control. A bird strike can break a pilot's windshield. In this case birds took out both engines.
You have seconds to react by dropping the nose (to keep from stalling) to set up a glide while looking for a landing spot within reach that doesn't involve trees and sharp objects. Finding that in a place like New York (or over the Piney Woods of East Texas) is virtually impossible.
For the pilot, there is no time in an emergency to call for a committee meeting, ask advisers, or dial 911. There is no time to be indecisive. You don't get to replay the simulator if you get it wrong. Just make the best decision you can based on your training and the situation -- and do it.
A few years ago, I was flying a Cessna 182 over Lake Houston when all the instruments went dark due to an electrical failure --the only thing working was the engine. There was no way to radio anyone. The gauges were no longer working so I didn't know how long the gas would hold out. Tall pine trees ruled out a landing. When I got to the Lufkin airport we had to pump the landing gear down by hand. I got it down on a runway without having to land in water - and had enough adrenalin going to help me get through a kidnapping later that same day.
The US Airways crew had the sense not to open the rear doors of the cabin which would have allowed water in, causing the plane to sink in frigid waters. That would have meant a quick death for anyone caught in 36 degree water.
Kudos to the NY ferry boats and others that saw the landing and pulled up to the plane floating downstream to rescue passengers - well before the first responders were able to arrive.
So the pilot of Flight 1549 pulled off a miracle on the Hudson.
Let's hope this is the first of a series of miracles this year to pull our economy out of the same kind of free fall. We need pilot-President Obama to guide us to a similar soft landing after the economy has taken some major hits during its climb-out.