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June 10, 2009

Flight 1549: The 'Miracle' That Almost Wasn't

by Barbara S. Peterson

I just returned from Washington, D.C., where Captain Chesley B. "Sully" Sullenberger (who needs no further introduction by now) was the lead-off witness at the National Transportation Safety Board's hearings into the now legendary USAirways Flight 1549.  The overused qualifier "miracle" was mercifully retired during the sober-minded inquiry into the one major accident in recent memory that didn't result in fatalities or serious injuries. 

Yes, Sully and his co-pilot, Jeff Skiles, rightly deserve praise for their handling of a full engine shutdown and water landing of a plane crippled by a bizarre bird strike, with all 155 people aboard surviving. But still, if just one element had gone awry--a single passenger killed or disabled during the evacuation--the miracle would have quickly morphed into a nightmare.

Testimony at the session revealed just how close Flight 1549 came to disaster. One revealing moment came when Dr. Barbara Burian, a research psychologist with NASA, testified about the problems crews have with sticking to the oftentimes cumbersome checklists created to guide crews through a particular emergency. 

Of the 107 airline 'incidents' Burian studied in one recent one year period, only a handful were handled "by the book."  Most, she said, were marked by confusion and missteps.  Flight 1549's crews attempt, according to Burian, fell into the "less successful" category. 

Among other things that went wrong, the crew didn't have time to go through more than one page of the three-page checklist they had for handling a total engine failure, and thus, they didn't have time to prepare for a ditching.  In fact, the crash isn't even technically a ditching--it's a "forced landing on water." 

Yes, these distinctions do matter. The point being that in a true ditching procedures are followed.  Passengers don life vests (which most didn't in Flight 1549) and are briefed on what they'll face when the plane hits water.  Sully said his one regret is that he didn't warn the passengers he'd be making an amphibious landing.   And there were also suggestions that the plane may not have been adequately reinforced to withstand the impact and that the crew didn't get enough training for the possibility of landing in the drink. 

The evacuation didn't go so smoothly either. The cargo hold pushed up through the cabin floor of the rear of the plane, seriously injuring a flight attendant and flooding the back cabin, which meant that two aft exits were unusable.  The remaining two life rafts didn't have room for all aboard, forcing many passengers onto the wings of the sinking craft.  

Some of the most riveting testimony came from a passenger sitting in the back, Billy Campbell, who spoke of clambering over the tops of seats to get out while water rushed in below him.  The swift arrival of rescue vessels made up for these foul-ups, but it could easily have turned out otherwise.    

Meanwhile, while Sully is genuinely a hero, let's recognize the adulation he inspires for what it is: A way of displacing our fears about handing over enormous trust to the now mostly anonymous people up front; fears that have only been further stoked by  two major fatal crashes in the news: Air France Flight 447 and the Buffalo crash last February.  

Postscript:  I happened to meet Captain Sully Sullenberger last weekend. He was signing autographs at a publishing conference in the Javits Center just a couple of blocks from where he had splashed down six months earlier,  to promote his forthcoming book  (his ghost writer is no doubt scribbling furiously at this moment), "Highest Duty: My Search for what Really Matters."  He came across as modest and a bit uncomfortable with his accidental celebrity.  But let's hope his tome will reveal what he really thinks about the state of pilot training in the U.S.  in light of his warnings about how experienced pilots like him are being driven from the business by pay cuts and worsening work conditions

Further reading:
* Searching for Air France Flight 447's Black Box
* On the Fly: Barbara Peterson The airline industry

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