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.

Plane Answers: Glide ratios and the most critical phase of flight

Welcome to Gadling’s feature, Plane Answers, where our resident airline pilot, Kent Wien, answers your questions about everything from takeoff to touchdown and beyond. Have a question of your own? Ask away!

Twenty-four hours before the US Airways ditching in the Hudson River, I received this question from Roger:

I have taken lessons in a 182 Cessna and I remember that the glide ratio was very good if there was ever a need to land without power. What is the Glide Ratio for something like a 767, 747 or an MD80 or [a bag of] rocks? Hopefully, I’ll never get to experience it on a commercial airliner in flight.

Tell me you didn’t ask this question and then jump on a flight from New York to Charlotte the next day, Roger!

The truth is, on almost every jet airliner, we use a rule-of-thumb that says it will take three miles to descend 1000 feet at idle. That same rule-of-thumb would work for an airliner that has lost all engines.

So at 3,000 feet, you should be able to glide 9 miles. At 30,000 feet you’ll be able to glide 90 miles. And here’s an interesting twist. A heavy airliner will actually glide farther than a light one because of the added momentum.

This glide ratio is at least 16:1 or 16 feet forward for every foot of altitude lost. This is a ratio right up there with a Schweizer 1-26 glider, and better than most birds or a hang glider in fact.

As for the bag of rocks, well, I’d even prefer to be in an MD-80 than a ‘dead-stick’ bag of rocks. (pilot humor, excuse me folks).
Kylie asks a question, again just hours before the accident:

I’m not sure that the reason I’m so nervous about flying is that I’m not in control, but that I don’t know how “in control” the pilots are if something goes wrong. One of my friends told me that one time he was on a plane and all of a sudden the power goes out, it sounded like the engines stopped, the plane seemed to slow down, and began to drop. However this took place over a few seconds before everything came back on. I’m always worried that if some unexpected problem occurred, and something caused the engine(s) to stop working, is there anything that pilots could do, or is there any back up that would get the engines to work again?

The FAA requires that all transport category aircraft have enough performance to operate on one engine in all phases of flight including just after takeoff. When deciding on the criteria for a two-engine aircraft to cross the Atlantic, they did some studies to calculate the odds of both engines failing. These odds were overwhelmingly small, since each engine is built to have a record of no more than one failure per 30,000 hours or so. So the odds for both engines failing is exceedingly rare, even with the recent bird strike accident.

There have been cases of fuel exhaustion, most recently with an Air Transat A330 that developed a significant fuel leak. That airplane successfully glided to the Azores off the coast of Portugal for a rather successful landing at the airport. The relatively good glide ratio shown above allowed them to travel nearly 100 miles without power.

We also have an extra generator not associated with the engines called the APU that’s available if we need it. This generator can power the entire airplane on its own. Finally, if we lost all three sources of power, on the 757 and 767 that I fly, there’s a small wind generated turbine called a RAT (ram air turbine) that pops out below the airplane and drives a generator to provide power to the flight controls. So double and triple-redundancies are built into every airliner.

Rose asks an equally dramatic question:

I have a brother who is an aeronautical engineer, and he tells me that the first 15 seconds of a flight, (once the wheels have left the ground) is the absolute most volatile because there is no recovery. If something ‘goes wrong’….the aircraft “must fly” before it can land. So he always tells me to count “one-one thousand, two – one thousand….until I reach 15. He says that if I’m ‘still alive’, that my chances of survival increase by 1000%. Is this true?

We actually call it a critical phase of flight. And that’s why the FAA makes us train for just about any scenario during that period.

Fortunately, modern airliners are rather overpowered and an engine failure is rather easily overcome by the thrust of the other engine. I’ve actually flown many small planes that didn’t have the performance with all engines running that a 757 does on one engine.

Ahh, but what about the dreaded dual-engine failure caused by geese you’re surely asking. There have been a number of engine failures that have been caused by a bird strike, but it’s incredibly rare for both engines to be taken out.

Contrary to what I’ve heard reported by some in the media, we do practice two-engine flame outs, at least at my airline. We usually save it as a ‘bonus’ practice at the end of our checkride or training.

Looking at this graph below, the portion after liftoff until the flaps are all the way up represents 5% of all accidents and 14% of the fatalities, interestingly.

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 with him at work.