November 18, 2009 in Opinion

Book dims hero’s limelight

Kevin Horrigan St. Louis Post-Dispatch
 

Smart Bombs

Gary Crooks’ Smart Bombs column will return Dec. 2.

It was in high school that I learned the terrible truth that is revisionist history: A lot of things that you think you know turn out not to be exactly true. In my case, it concerned the Battle of the Alamo. I still don’t want to talk about it.

Revisionist history used to take decades, even centuries. These days it can be a matter of weeks or months, like that whole “Mission: Accomplished” mess.

Now comes journalist-pilot William Langewiesche to suggest that some of the adulation that was directed toward US Airways Capt. Chesley B. Sullenberger III just 10 months ago may have been misplaced. Langewiesche says Sullenberger’s feat in landing a crippled jetliner on the Hudson River owed a lot to (dare we say it?) the French.

Sacre bleu!

The story was a sensation. US Airways Fight 1549 hit a flock of geese 90 seconds after takeoff from La Guardia Airport in New York last Jan. 15. Both engines were disabled. Within seconds Sullenberger coolly determined that his best chance was a water landing on the Hudson, an action so fraught with risk and so unlikely that pilots never train for it.

But he and co-pilot Jeff Skiles pulled it off without a hitch, holding what had turned into 100,000-pound glider in near-perfect trim and pitch and speed, making a wide U-turn and skimming it onto the river. Within minutes, on live TV, rescue boats plucked all 155 souls aboard off life rafts and the aircraft’s wings.

New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg immediately called it the “Miracle on the Hudson,” and the name stuck. Sullenberger and his crew, but especially “Sully,” were lionized. He attended President Barack Obama’s inauguration. He was hailed by Congress. He tossed the coin at the Super Bowl. He did interviews with bigfoot TV anchors and signed a $3 million book deal.

Langewiesche, in his new book “Fly by Wire – the Geese, the Glide, the Miracle on the Hudson,” has no beef with any of this. Sullenberger and Skiles both are superb pilots and handled their jobs flawlessly, he says, focusing relentlessly on the task at hand.

He just wishes Sullenberger at some point would have pointed out that he was flying an Airbus 320, which made the whole thing a lot easier than it looked.

Langewiesche, before he became what the New York Times calls “the Steve McQueen of American journalism” at the Atlantic and now Vanity Fair, flew jetliners for a living. His journalistic specialty is disaster reconstruction, explaining in deft, clean prose what happens at the far edge of human and technological capability.

This is not his best book – for that see “American Ground: Unbuilding the World Trade Center.” “Fly by Wire” was written in a hurry, expanded from a magazine article that was published just five months after the accident. He talked to Sullenberger only briefly, and Sully kept the best stuff for his own book.

No fool, Sully. At age 58 with daughters ready for college, he realized he was having his 15 minutes of fame and that airline pilots don’t make what they used to – indeed, Skiles had to run a home construction company on the side to make ends meet.

That’s part of the story – how changes in the airline industry have created thousands of unhappy pilots and flight attendants. Among the unhappy pilots are many whose demeanor, skills and competence are not on a par with Sullenberger’s and Skiles’.

We read about some of them in “Fly by Wire.” They are pilots who just couldn’t hack it when the usual tedium of flying commercial aircraft was replaced with do-or-die peril. It makes you wish airlines had to post pilot ratings at the door.

Langewiesche writes that the unsung hero of Flight 1549 is a French test pilot named Bernard Ziegler, who in the late 1970s and early 1980s talked Airbus, the Anglo-French airline consortium, into developing “pilot-proof” airliners.

The Airbus 320, the model that landed in the Hudson, was the first of these. A system of redundant computers flies the plane. “(Ziegler) wanted to build an airplane that could not be stalled – not once, not ever – by any pilot at the controls,” Langewiesche writes.

Many pilots still resent this system, and Boeing – Airbus’ competitor – has been slow to adopt it. Sully, a good union man who has the usual dose of pilot ego himself, might well have been able to land a Boeing plane in the Hudson, Langewiesche writes, but many pilots wouldn’t have, or they might have tried to return to La Guardia.

Sully was smart and cool enough to turn on auxiliary power to his flight controls after the bird strike. He was cool and smart enough to know he couldn’t get to an airport at the altitude and speed he was gliding. Both of these were brilliant decisions, Langewiesche says.

But after that, all he had to was point the plane at the broad river. Ziegler’s system took over from there.

I know. It’s like that Alamo thing. I don’t want to hear it.

Kevin Horrigan is a columnist for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.


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