Pilots on Sullenberger

Chesley Sullenberger III, the pilot of the jetliner that ditched in the Hudson River last week, put out a statement yesterday that basically told America’s media to calm down and move on. He was to be at the inauguration today but, mercifully, no media seems to have spotted him yet.

Through not fault of his own, the attention to Sullenberger seems to be — understandably — bristling others in the “pilot community,” who point out that more people than Sullenberger were involved in the successful ditching.

On his excellent blog, Blogging at FL250, the Minneapolis-based regional airline pilot known only as Sam makes the point.

Although we don’t know much about what happened in the cockpit during the ditching yet, we do know that Sullenburger was a Captain’s Captain in his conduct during the evacuation and afterwards.

That said, there were a lot of things going on here that go beyond Captain Sullenburger. First off, he wasn’t the only crew in that airplane. Both the First Officer and the flight attendants were very experienced, and obviously very capable. The aft flight attendant, in particular, is known to have stopped panicking passengers from opening the rear doors, which would’ve sunk the airplane much more quickly. Luck played a pretty big role, too. If they’d hit those birds at 500 feet of altitude instead of 3000, this could’ve turned out very differently. If the 1/2 mile visibility in snow that prevailed earlier in the day had stuck around, I doubt the outcome would’ve been so positive. If you’re going to have to ditch an airliner, you can’t really beat a calm Hudson River just off midtown Manhattan.

I’m going to have to disagree with Dave in his assessment that only a handful of pilots could’ve pulled this off. I personally think that a majority of airline pilots, if put in this situation, would rise to the occasion. This outcome was no accident in the same way that the safety record of the last eight years hasn’t been an accident. It is instead the product of a safety culture almost unique to the airlines, one which has the efforts of thousands of pilots like Captain Sullenburger at its core. The fact that the crew responded so well to a scenario nobody trained for isn’t only a testament to the crew, it’s also a testament to a system that has in recent years recognized that the most serious situations are usually those that are unforeseen and has responded by adjusting training to emphasize dealing with situations there’s no checklist for. It’s a system that recognizes that truly safe pilots are made, not born. It’s a system that seeks out deficiencies and remedies them, that hunts down threats and reduces risks.

Another pilot blogger, known only as “Dave” on Flight Level 390 takes a different stance:

I may not have had the “right stuff” to pull this off. The passengers of this A320 are very lucky that this amazing crew kept their cool. I would hesitate to guess how many pilots flying the Line could have done this… Probably not more than a dozen.

I’m having dinner tonight with an acquaintance from Delta and his co-pilot. Both are making their first trip into the Twin Cities now that Delta has taken over Northwest. I think I’ll leave the issue out of the conversation.

The next time I get on a plane, however, I’m going to go with Sam’s version.

  • Weekend Edition took the time to praise and mention the names of each member of the crew. Scott Simon didn’t philosophizing about who deserved more or less. He praised them all.