Plane Answers: Why captain Sullenberger and his crew deserve the hero status

There’s an interesting trend in our culture that cites pilots either as heroes or villains based on their performance in an emergency. I would imagine that Captain “Sully” Sullenberger would actually cringe at a pilot being given either label. And while we won’t hear from him until the airing of 60 Minutes this Sunday, I imagine he’ll proclaim that he simply did his job the best he could, and that the entire crew’s training contributed to the successful ditching.

But Captain Sullenberger might deserve far more credit than he’s (hypothetically) giving himself. Sullenberger’s ‘stick and rudder’ skills are what I would hope most pilots are capable of. But his true act of heroism, and the main reason he may actually deserve that label, isn’t getting much attention.

It was his decision to abandon any chance of an engine-out landing back at LaGuardia or the Teterborough airport, and make his way for the Hudson River, that should be commended. Considering the position they were in, I’d imagine a majority of pilots (probably myself included) would have made the attempt to turn back to LaGuardia. Of course, in hindsight, this would have been far riskier.

Prior to US Airways 1549, ditching an airliner in icy water has, for most pilots, been a euphemism for meeting thy maker.
We train for ditching scenarios mostly in ground school, since the simulator can’t really recreate a water landing. In a classroom we cover the emergency equipment, slide and emergency exit operation, safety equipment location and crew member responsibilities every 9 months to a year during our recurrent training.

We’ve been told that a successful ditching is entirely possible, that the airplane will have a rather significant amount of buoyancy, and in fact “may float for a considerable amount of time if intact.”

This Pan Am ditching is a good example of that theory.

In the simulator, we often end our training session with a ‘dead stick’ (engine out) landing at an airport within 50 to 100 miles of our location which is rather realistic. Realistic enough to be sweating by the time you touch down.

Even after being taught about the potential for a successful ditching, most pilots imagine their scenario in the middle of the Atlantic. And this thought has led many of us to consider a successful ditching rather improbable.

Since every pilot has now witnessed how successful a well planned ditching can be, Captain Sullenberger may deserve some credit in the future for saving lives. There haven’t been many recent ditching examples, and certainly none have received more attention than that of US Airways 1549.

I’m sure many pilots would have made attempts to go for the other airports with varying degrees of success. I’m looking forward to running through this exact scenario in the simulator. I’ll be sure to share the excitement of attempting to land at LaGuardia in a future Cockpit Chronicles. In the meantime, you can try your luck using a rather ridiculous web simulation.

My hat’s off to the captain for making this difficult decision, his command of the evacuation and even his presence of mind to retrieve the aircraft logbook after checking for any other passengers before being the last to step onto the slide-raft.

And the rest of the crew?

US Airways has seen an amazing amount of stagnation – more than any other U.S. carrier in the past decade. First officer Jeffrey Skiles has witnessed that first hand. He was previously a captain at the airline but even though he was hired in 1986, his seniority caused him to be bumped back to the right seat during the past 8 years of shrinking.

Skiles immediately jumped into his role as the non-flying pilot after the bird strike caused captain Sullenberger to take over. He turned to the only procedure in the book that might get them out of the situation, a loss of both engines checklist and made every attempt at getting an engine started.

It was a procedure that was designed to be accomplished at a higher altitude with more speed. But who knows; with the right combination of starting the APU (auxiliary power unit used for electricity and the air to start an engine at slower airspeeds) and his relentless attempts at a relight, maybe first officer Skiles would be the hero today.

Every ground evacuation seems to result in either broken bones or, in some cases, fatalities. That’s what makes the water evacuation led by the very experienced flight attendants at US Airways all the more amazing. With no fatalities and minimal injuries to the passengers, flight attendants Shelia Dail, Doreen Welsh and Donna Dent pulled off one of the most challenging procedures in their manual with, by all accounts, the utmost in professionalism.

Do you have a question about something related to the pointy end of an airplane? Ask Kent and maybe he’ll use it for next Monday’s Plane Answers.

Check out his other blog, Cockpit Chronicles and travel along on one of his trips.