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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.

Comments (12)

God bless those men.

I thought, when I heard about it, about something you said a few months ago, Zippy: Something to the effect that as a pilot, if you don't panic, even when you have what seems like no time, you have a real chance of avoiding disaster.

I gather that a major part of Sullenberger's skill in preventing loss of life involved the absolute straightness of the landing--if one wing had gone under first, the plane probably would have flipped. Is that right?

I gather that a major part of Sullenberger's skill in preventing loss of life involved the absolute straightness of the landing--if one wing had gone under first, the plane probably would have flipped. Is that right?
Well, I assume so; but part of the issue with this kind of landing in that kind of aircraft is that there really is no history or testing to go on. The Ethiopian plane definitely flipped upon digging in a wing; there is actually a video of that accident. But he also was unable to deploy flaps and slow down, so he hit the water very fast, which may also have been a factor.

Some welcome good news!

I heard Capt. Sullenberger was not only the last person to leave the plane but that he left only after checking the plane twice personally to make sure no one had been left behind. His picture should be in the dictionary next to the word "pilot."

It would be a travesty if his heroism were to go unrewarded such that he was not formally awarded a medal of some sort or even accorded an honorific title.

Still, there but by the Grace of God that this amazing feat (along with this pilot's inherent skill) was made possible to begin with -- at least, this is my own opinion.

His picture should be in the dictionary next to the word "pilot."

Every aviation expert on TV was simply blown away by how perfect this was in both the decision process and execution. In the part of "Outliers" that I listened to on audio the airline industry spends an incredible amount of time looking back and compensating for the series of things that go wrong in a major crash, this time they should study all the things that went right and strive to emulate it.

As for pilots - personally, I'll take the one that doesn't need a plane to fly: Jesus Christ

Acts 1:9 After he said this, he was taken up before their very eyes, and a cloud hid him from their sight.

His landings are perfect every time, in every condition!

Jonathan Prejean - actually Capt. Sullenberger's picture should also be placed in the dictionary next to "captain" - because by that point, the Airbus was a boat, and he didn't want to let anyone go down with his ship!

All kidding aside - Capt. Sullenberger and co-pilot Skiles did an extraordinary job, and were incredibly blessed.

What hasn't been mentioned, is that their clarity of thinking and control also extended to the crew and all the passengers on board. The boat rescue was quite remarkable. Plane to boat transfers, I would imagine, would not be easy because the submerged wings represented a nav hazard. The incident is a great reminder for all of us to work effectively together during a crisis.

Astonishing feat. There is no doubt that many beers will be hoisted and many songs sung in honor of Captain Sullenberger and co-pilot Skiles, and well deserved. Your health, heroic men.

In spite of our addiction to the news as a source of what bad things happened in the world today, watching this on TV helped me to remember that good news is the best kind after all.

You might be interested in this profile printed in The Guardian (UK). If ever the right man was in the right place at the right time...

I thought this weekend of Lenny Skutnik, the hero who dove into the icy Potomac to rescue that drowning woman after the Air Florida crash in 1982. Thank God for the courage of such heroes.

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