January 16, 2009

The Only Option

Yesterday, Captain Chelsey B. Sullenberger III, 57, managed to land, in an act of exceptional aeronautical mastership, US Airways Flight 1549, a commercial jet with a wingspan of 34, a lenghth of 38 and a height of 12 meter, with no power on a river in the middle of a city.

It was no surprise to learn that he is a former US Air Force fighter pilot. Sullenberger was the last to leave the plane after he had made sure twice that nobody was left behind.

Flight 1549 had taken off -- late -- from LaGuardia airport at about 3:30 p.m. EST bound for Charlotte, North Carolina, with 150 passengers and five crew members on board. Shortly afterwards it emerged that a bird strike had knocked out both of the engines. According to controllers, an "eerie calm" reigned between controller and cockpit communications as options became few and then disappeared. Returning to LaGuardia was too far. Landing at small Teterboro Airport across the river in New Jersey wasn't feasible either anymore. In the end, a river landing remained the only option.

Radar showed the nearly 10-year-old jet making a series of tight turns to left to head down the river, flying low over the George Washington Bridge. As the plane touched down, tail first, on the river, it kicked up a tremendous splash. This way of touching ground -- or rather water -- took the impact out of the landing and prevented the plane from going to pieces. All of the passengers and the crew survived.

Captain Sullenberger is a veteran of an -- outdying? -- aviation tradition in which safety has been a major concern. After his military career he became a captain at a time when flying for American carriers was still a high-status and high income job. His expertise enabled him to start an aviation consulting business called Safety Reliability Methods, Inc. as well as to work with both the National Transportation Safety Board and the United States Air Force performing accident investigations. He is currently a visiting scholar at the University of California's Berkeley's Center for Catastrophic Risk Management. Here is his website.

God bless, Captain Sullenberger! Your calm under pressure and cool professionalism -- and your care for your passengers after the landing -- were above and beyond a pilot's duty. May the coming generations be up to your performance for the benefit of us all.