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Remembering the everyday heroism of aircraft pilots

ByJack Ferguson

Nov 26, 2017

“A forced water landing”. This rather humbly describes the heroic efforts of Captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger on 15 January 2009 who had to land his plane twenty minutes after take off when several Canada geese were sucked into both of its engines. Chesley had to land the US Airways Flight 1549 in the middle of the Hudson River in a feat that has been described as ‘the miracle on the Hudson’. Amazingly, no passengers were injured.

In a few seconds Chesley and his co-pilot had to make potentially life-threatening decisions, analyze the risks and take the course of action that proved to be least dangerous. They had to rationally determine whether they could make it to nearby Teterboro or turn around and head back to LaGuardia. In those few precious moments it was decided that both of these options were inviable: the only choice was to land in the Hudson. Technology and training come second to the power of the pilot’s nerve and  resolve.

A pilot’s job revolves around the safety of his passengers and crew. And to this day pilots are still forced to make difficult decisions and to calculate risk on a regular basis. If this risk is too great, many pilots must resolve to cancel a flight in its entirety, before the plane even makes the runway.

This is exactly what happened on Sunday 19 November, when the pilot of an Air Europa Embraer ERJ-195 aircraft in Madrid bound for Ibiza rejected take-off on the runway because the aircraft veered to the right during taxi. Another aircraft had to carry out the flight after a delay of three hours for passengers.

Commercial aviation has had a long history of pilots saving lives single-handedly. On a late afternoon in June 1993 pilot Edward Wyer during a flight from Birmingham to Norwich had to land in farmland without the support of landing gear, after the aircraft’s right engine fell to the ground, with one of the propeller blades coming loose and tearing through the nose of the plane, and spearing the left engine, killing that too. It took all of Wyer’s strength and coordination to direct and control the yoke, to allow the aircraft to dodge obstacles such as power lines and land safely on the small patch of empty field. Out of that controlled disaster, only one passenger reported any injury, this being whiplash.

Another instance which is widely agreed among many air transport pilots as one of the most extraordinary emergency landings of all time was a landing in Baghdad International Airport of an Airbus A300 on November 22 2003 after it was hit by a missile.

The A300 had lost all three of its hydraulic systems and was on fire, as well as rapidly leaking fuel. When the initial approach to the airport went badly, the pilots were able to climb away and line up with a different runway. This time they touched down successfully but with the aircraft rolling slightly off the runway into the dirt surrounding it.

While the argument has been made that human error can cause the most fatal of aircraft crashes, in the case of ‘the miracle on the Hudson,’ many experts wondered if Sully should have made an attempt to turn back to LaGuardia Airport the moment after the flock of birds were sucked into his aircraft’s engine. This kind of second-guessing doesn’t sit well with veteran pilots, however, who believe that even with the benefit of hindsight, in the moment of danger, Sully and his crew made the best decisions possible. “He did what he knew to be a safe option,” Barry Schiff told Wired emphasizing a point made by many pilots since the event. Schiff, a retired airline pilot who has flown more than 300 different kinds of aircraft, says it’s one thing to recreate flight conditions in a simulator. It’s quite another to recreate the timing and stress involved in making real decisions with real consequences.


Image: Pixabay

By Jack Ferguson


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