Pilot in "Miracle on Hudson" Landing Still Heroic but New Airline/Airplane Flight Safety Issues Raised

You may have heard that the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) issued its final report on the landing of US Airways flight 1549 – and you’ll be glad to know that pilot Chesley Sullenberger – Capt. Sully – is still a hero.

His “Miracle on the Hudson” landing in January 2009 – in which the airline pilot cooly saved the lives of all passengers by landing his Airbus A320 oh-so-gently on the Hudson – remains an awesome feat.

Could Sully have made it back to LaGuardia?

However, (and isn’t there always a “however”?) the report hints – that’s how the Wall St. Journal put it – “hints that, in hindsight, the celebrated pilot could have made it back to La Guardia Airport.”

Apparently, simulator flights were put through the same wringer that Sully’s plane was, beginning with the birds striking the engines – and in these simulator tests, the “pilots” were able to get the plane back to the simulated LaGuardia (in some cases).

Of course, unlike Sully, they knew what to expect – plus, perhaps they didn’t worry too much about the possible consequences if they weren’t able to clear Manhattan’s skyline to get back to the airport.

“He’s a hero, and the investigators are merely…simulators”

Be that as it may, I think a comment I saw on Gawker’s take on Capt. Sully’s airline heroics vs. the simulated flights, says it all: “Captain Sully made a split-second decision under extreme stress. That’s why he’s a hero, and the investigators are merely . . . simulators.”

But it seems there were some safety issues noted during that incredible landing – news reports say these included the airplane’s equipment and landing preparation:

  • Life vests and lifelines (to keep passengers from falling into the icy waters) were poorly positioned and difficult to get to (that’s why we saw so few wearing the vests)
  • The “brace position” may need updating; two passengers who followed the illustration for this position from the airline safety card suffered broken shoulders

Did anything go right in the “Miracle on the Hudson”?

What went right? Plenty The Airbus A320 is a good aircraft, and so are most modern planes; in fact the FAA requires that all U.S. plane manufacturers have a plan to make planes as buoyant as possible in case of water ditches, so passengers can get out and into life boats.

The Airbus “ditch switch”

More buoyancy notes: jet fuel is lighter than water, which assists flotation. And the European-made Airbus that Sully piloted even came with a “ditch switch” – an ingenious on/off switch that can be found in the plane’s cockpit, just over the windshield that can shut all outflow valves and ventilation ports to keep water from getting in (however, news reports say Sully and co-pilot Jeff Skiles didn’t have time to flip it).

Sometimes – you just need a hero

What really helped to save the day – and all those passengers – is the fact that the plane didn’t break up or get badly damaged during the landing. You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to know that’s the best way to insure that a plane stays buoyant. Which of course, brings us back to the courageous pilot and crew who made that happen – by landing his plane so perfectly that it didn’t break up.

And most of us don’t need an NTSB report to recognize a hero when we see one.

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Published: May 10, 2010