As some of you may know, I am a private pilot. I am licensed to fly land-based single-engine airplanes, and I have an instrument rating which permits me to fly in the clouds and in bad weather. I am also a licensed helicopter pilot.
All of that makes me about as qualified to comment on yesterday's extraordinary aviation accident as the average weekend golfer is to comment on the performance of Tiger Woods.
My comment, succinctly, is: Wow.
I don't know of any other successful intentional emergency water landing (ditching) of a large modern airliner, other than yesterday's. The survival rate for ditching in a small plane is actually remarkably good; but there just aren't any data points to go on for large airliners. Airliner engines and systems are incredibly reliable, which is component of why, mile for mile, airline travel is safer than any other form of travel -- even bicycles or walking. But part of what that means is that in the history of aviation, before yesterday, there have been no successful emergency large airliner landings on the water, despite all the time spent by stewardesses telling us what to do in case it happens.
It is possible that Ethiopian Airlines 961 might have achieved this feat if the pilot had not been fighting with hijackers in the middle of the ditching. I certainly view Captain Abate and co-pilot Yonas Mekuria as aviation heroes; Abate seems to be something of a hijacker magnet, having been hijacked twice before the Flight 961 accident. But in any case it is a very different story from yesterday's story.
Then there is Japan Airlines 2, which landed short of the runway at San Francisco International in 1968. Captain Asoh may not be the hero in the accident, but you have to give him credit: when he took the stand in front of the NTSB, upon being asked why he landed in the shallow water short of the runway, he replied "As you Americans say, I f***ed up." When you hear a pilot say "I was just being an Asoh", unlike Captain Asoh, he isn't using profanity: but like Captain Asoh, he is manning up to his mistake.
If you want the definition of a cool customer, though, you need look no further than Captian Chesley B. "Sully" Sullenberger III and co-pilot Jeff Skiles. Over densely populated New York City, these men were faced with the unthinkable: bird strikes had taken out both of their engines. And while takeoffs are optional, landings are not. I read a rumor that the initial plan, in the first seconds after the loss of the engines, was to glide to Teterboro airport for a dead-stick landing on a runway; this kind of thing has been done before.
But there wasn't enough altitude: the choice was buildings or freezing cold water. Looking back during those crucial moments, history provided no comfort. Ahead and below them was death, not merely their own deaths but their passengers' deaths too, 155 souls, and possibly the deaths of others on the surface. But they followed the pilot's mantra: fly the airplane. Never stop flying the airplane, not until you are dead and can't fly it anymore; fly it into and through the crash, as long as you have any control.
And that is just what they did.