Friday, January 16, 2009

Splash Landing

It’s been over thirty years since I piloted an airplane, and that was a Piper Cherokee. It’s been longer still since I went through flight school and in-flight training. But I will never forget that the first thing my instructor, Steve Lee from Crow, Inc. at Toledo Express Airport, taught me was how to land the plane in case of an emergency. We did so many practice emergency landings in fields, on grass strips, and over the Maumee River that it became part of the lizard-brain programming, like hitting the brakes in a car. So it’s a huge part of learning to fly: how to avoid death and injury should you encounter something that causes your plane to become, as Steve once put it, “un-airworthy.”

Patrick Smith, a commercial pilot and author of the Ask the Pilot column at Salon.com, has some thoughts on the US Airways Hudson River landing yesterday.

News coverage, meanwhile, is abuzz over the apparent heroics of the US Airways pilots, and maybe you are wondering how pilots are trained when it comes to putting a plane down in water.

They aren’t, per se. There are procedures in the book, but ditchings, as they’re called, are not regularly rehearsed in simulators. Not only are they exceptionally unlikely, but more critical than the ditching itself is dealing with the emergency that causes it — multiple engine failures, a fire, or some other unfortunate scenario. As for hitting the water, the gist is to do so slowly and gently, with the nose at more or less the typical landing angle, wings level, and avoiding heavy swells.

The U.S. Airways jet remained in one piece Thursday and everybody on board survived — indicators of a superb job by the flight crew under extremely urgent conditions. (And to clarify something that the rest of the media is predictably screwing up: there were two pilots in the cockpit — a captain and a first officer. Both were fully qualified to operate the aircraft in all regimes of flight, and both are responsible for the outcome.) They were able to maintain control and, it seems, hit the water at as slow a speed as possible. Had they hit too hard and broken apart, we’d be looking for bodies.

Captain Smith makes it sound somewhat matter-of-fact, but I’m still impressed and amazed at how this turned out, and the credit goes to the captain, first officer and crew who did what they were trained to do. He also reminds us that in spite of turmoil and tough times in the airline industry, flying is remarkably safe.

In a lot of ways, the lack of fatalities and mostly successful outcome should underscore just how safe flying is. Somewhere on the order of 15,000 commercial flights depart every day in this country, and yet two full years have elapsed since our last commercial airline fatality. That’s a record. More than seven years since the last large-scale crash. Also a record.

Training, technology and, yes, plain old luck are all to thank, but it’s astonishing if you think about it, and quite the irony: In a time when airlines have lost all respect, staggering through years of financial ruin, they have nonetheless maintained an impeccable standard of safety.

Roger that.