A few months after US Airways Flight 1549 landed in the Hudson River, a video animation was posted on YouTube synchronized with the audio recording of the actual air traffic control communications with pilot Sully Sullenberger. Upon hearing it, I wrote this brief commentary and emailed it to a few friends. Sully’s retirement has put him back in the news so I have posted this to my new blog.
I’ve been a private pilot since 1981 and it seemed that while Sully’s performance was universally and deservedly applauded, many non-pilots confused the remarkable with the routine in his actions. Listening to the recording, you can get a sense for just how quickly the whole episode unfolded.
What was truly amazing about Sully’s performance wasn’t his successful water landing. That is something that can be repeatedly practiced in the simulator. The heroic and astonishing thing was his incredible life-or-death decision.
This animated reconstruction clearly shows how little time was involved. The entire flight lasted only 90 seconds after striking the birds and losing all thrust. A fully-loaded jet descends power-off at about 2000 feet-per-minute, and they were at 3200 feet when they hit the birds. But each second that the plane descends, its gliding distance is reduced, and the pilot’s available choices narrow rapidly. If you make a decision, you have to make it now.
Sully had about a 20 second window in which to determine that he wasn’t going to try to return to his departure airport, divert to Teterboro across the river, crash land on a freeway or golf course, or reverse course and ditch in the Hudson River, his only viable option. After 20 seconds, he would have crashed catastrophically regardless of what he decided.
Sully also had to fit in a few other things during those precious seconds: At the time of the bird strike, the co-pilot was on the controls, so Sully had to take over (it might take 20 seconds just to adjust your seat). He also took time out to communicate with Air Traffic Control, and doubtlessly he was having a dialog with his copilot about trying to get an engine restart.
When bad things happen in a jet during, or immediately after, takeoff, the consequences are usually very, very bad: the plane is very heavily loaded with lots of flammable fuel, it is configured for lots of drag, is moving relatively slowly, is close to the ground, and the pilots are pre-occupied with ATC communication as they penetrate the very complex airspace above a big civil airport.
What’s more, the human mind hates to abandon all of the routine and grasp the fact that everyone aboard is going to probably die in less than two minutes. The urge to waste time restarting un-startable engines or picking an apparently open field on the ground below is incredibly strong, and will almost certainly fail. Sully’s near-immediate turn towards the river showed that he fell victim to none of these mental traps.
And the option he chose—ditching in a freezing river—even as practiced multiple times in the simulator, probably only gave him a 30 or 40 percent chance of surviving the initial impact, let alone surviving the egress and sub-zero water. He committed to that option with clarity, immediacy, and certainty, for himself, and 150 other people. That’s heroic.