Where Did The “Miracle” on The Hudson Lie?

As the title of the piece on Sully’s ditching in the Hudson was being wrongly taken to imply criticism of Sully we have rewritten the end as follows:

“One cannot take away Sully’s achievement. Just imagine the gut-wrenching feeling he had to overcome on finding himself engineless over a packed city with no height to play with. The double-entendre in our title “Where Did The ‘Miracle’ on The Hudson Lie?’ was intentional, but not to disparage Sully.

“LIE” was referring to the movie falsely portraying the NTSB investigators as heartless inquisitors failing to consider “thinking time” and claiming Sully could have got back to LaGuardia when in fact they had factored it in and thought he made the right decision. More importantly it referred to the fact that the ”miracle” LAY principally in everyone on board managing to evacuate onto the wings and into the life rafts (with Sully ensuring all were out) and once there without exception being rescued—of course all thanks to Sully having succeeded in bringing  their A320  safely down onto the smooth but inhospitable water.”

 

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Restarting our blog with https

In trying move this website to the more secure and increasingly favoured by Google https we lost most of our earlier posts, and notably the one saying how we are going to miss the input of Australian aviation journalist Ben Sandilands who died last October and gave advice for the second edition of Air Crashes and Miracle Landings.

However, as the links on Google are no longer valid it is good to be starting again, and making the change to https now rather than later when there would be much more to lose.

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Sully Comparisons

 

In our book we just wanted to put Sully’s feat into perspective by mentioning that other pilots have faced and resolved even more difficult situations though perhaps not so scary.

One comparison was with the “Gimli Glider Incident” (in Chapter 2) where an Air Canada Boeing 767 ran out of fuel with only  a tiny disused airfield at Gimli in reach. Coming in too high and much too fast the captain used the skills learnt as a glider pilot to lose that height and speed and touch down with no loss of life. A perhaps greater feat than the one achieved by Sully, who too had glider pilot skills but as we said just did not need them.

 

We end the piece on Sully’s feat as follows:

Sully’s flying skill—the thing for which, ironically, the public hold him in such high esteem—was the area where he performed creditably but not exceptionally. He let his airspeed fall too low and thus was unable to make an effective flare to break the excessive sink rate, which ultimately resulted in the panels under the tail section breaking and letting in water and the shock injuring the flight attendant sitting there. The NTSB investigators attributed this failure to maintain airspeed to tunnel vision brought about by lack of time, stress, work overload, the distractions of various alarms, the off-putting sight of skyscrapers alongside, and concentrating on maneuvering the aircraft, coupled with the fact that other audible warnings were prioritized over airspeed warnings at that low height.

They pointed out that without thrust from the engines, it would be extremely difficult for any pilot to achieve the recommended ditching speeds, assuming he or she knew them. However, Sully did strike the water with the wings virtually level, and at such an angle the aircraft did not spin, cartwheel, or break up. He did well enough, but other than keeping his nerve while performing that maneuver, he probably did not need all the talents developed from the age of three onwards extolled in his autobiography.

With the rear of the aircraft damaged and icy water coming in, perhaps the real miracle was the rescue, with not a single fatality thanks to the diligence of so many—boatmen, helicopter men, not forgetting Sully, who checked so thoroughly that everyone was out and gave advice and assistance to those in difficulty. This was also thanks to the cabin crew, all with twenty if not thirty years’ experience, showing there is something to be said for that. Admittedly, an average domestic flight might well have had more passengers with impaired mobility and made their task more difficult.

One of the many lessons noted by the NTSB investigators is a little chilling for those of us confined in seats so close to the one in front that in adopting the brace position we cannot bend fully over and grab our ankles, and instead have to press on the top of the back of the seat in front with our hands or arms. Two female passengers so doing suffered a shoulder fracture.

A man generously took charge of the baby a mother was carrying on her lap, but had the deceleration been far greater he might not have been able to save it as he did. Babies and infants in arms should ideally have their own seats and restraints; however, that might mean people unable to afford the extra seat would travel by road, which is far more dangerous.

One gratifying endnote is that the passengers who risked the lives of their fellow passengers and cabin crew by bringing their luggage with them lost it in the river, while those that did not got it returned.

Notwithstanding all we have said, one cannot take away Sully’s achievement. Just imagine the gut-wrenching feeling he had to overcome on finding himself engineless over a packed city with no height to play with.

Great pilots like great generals, as Napoleon said, need luck.

What is more, because he is clearly such a fine, upstanding person, Sully has been able to exploit his fame for good.

________________________________________

Referring to the movie we said:

The movie Sully, with Tom Hanks as a very credible and likeable Sully, proved a big box office hit in the US and abroad, in great part by making the hero look even more heroic, at the expense of the NTSB investigators.

Unlike the gripping movie Apollo 13, where the high drama lasted three days as the capsule with the three astronauts circled the moon, this incident lasted a mere three minutes from the moment of the bird strike to coming down safely on the water. Therefore, to hold cinemagoers’ interest, the filmmakers introduced scenes showing Sully imagining his aircraft hitting Midtown buildings in 9/11 style, and more disconcertingly created a false scenario in which Sully and Skiles are portrayed as victims of a drawn-out NTSB witch hunt, the dramatic finale being that public hearing at the NTSB, at which Sully pulls a cat out of a bag to dramatically prove for all to see that the callous investigators were totally wrong because they had forgotten to factor in “thinking time.” In fact, as said, it was the NTSB’s idea to factor it in and say he could not have got back to LaGuardia and had indeed acted correctly.

The writer of a glowing 5-star review of Air Crashes and Miracle Landings on Amazon UK said the only negative he could find was our disparaging Sully’s flying skills and “missing no opportunity to question them.”

With the book starting with Amelia Earhart and the loss of power over water the reader too quickly comes upon our analytical account of Sully’s exploit. The comparisons we make really refer to the circumstances rather than question his flying skills.  The title of the piece “Where did the Miracle on The Hudson Lie?” was a little confusing for though the double-entendre meaning of “Lie” was intentional we really meant the miracle LAY in the rescue from the Hudson partly thanks to the fact that the domestic flight happened to have life rafts. We will shortly try to correct this by adding a sentence at the end saying so.

We would welcome comments.

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Sully’s Miracle

Whether it’s your doctor or casual acquaintance in a bar, any suggestion you make to them that the movie Sully was not strictly accurate and that Sully’s feat should be put in perspective is received with incredulity.

A female reviewer of the first edition of our Air Crashes and Miracle Landings was so incensed she gave us one star, saying she could hardly bear to read on.

And this month a glowing review on Amazon UK of our expanded and more user-friendly second edition gave us five stars, noting that the only negative was our questioning Sully’s piloting skills and our making unfavourable comparisons whenever we could.

This made us wonder about the whole Sully phenomenon, for in no other incident does questioning a pilot’s actions, even if to ultimately largely approve, produce such a backlash.

Why is Sully revered worldwide, like a Charles Lindbergh, when other pilots have faced greater challenges in saving all or many of their passengers?

Obviously the fact that it took place under the full  glare of publicity in New York City is one reason.

But an image, as in the case of the classic photo of the young girl running away from the napalm during the Vietnam war, is everything.

People worshipped Sully for what they believed to be a miraculous ditching but surprisingly it is not the images of the ditching that come to mind but those of  the passengers huddled together on the wings and in the life rafts, looking so vulnerable and STILL needing to be rescued. Those images starkly humanised the event.

Had rescue boats not been three minutes away, and a helicopter not arrived soon, and the aircraft not happened to have life rafts even though it was a domestic flight over land, the outcome could have been very different.

While Sully’s decision-making was good and his piloting competent it was something other pilots should have been capable of.

Fortunately, he is a wonderful man, though many of the admirable qualities we subsequently learnt of, such as the ability to slow an aircraft and lose height using his glider-pilot skills just were not needed on that day.

We wish we had avoided the damaging controversy, but could hardly have left the incident out.

 

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Happened to be in countries when….

I started work on the first edition of Air Crashes and Miracle Landings when  a 747 of the “safest airline” overran the runway at 100 m.p.h at Bangkok in torrential rain. Luckily the rain had made the ground next to the golf  course beyond so soggy that the wheels sank into it slowing the massive aircraft.

By pure chance I happened to be in countries when headline accidents occurred such as the Turkish Airlines DC-10 in Paris that happened on this very day (#OTD) in 1974.

There were others: Two in Japan, namely the “sightseeing” BOAC 707  near Mount Fuji in 1966, and the worst-ever single aircraft accident, JL123, in 1985.

Being in the country at the time, enabled me to pick up on facts mentioned in the local media, making them more real in my book.

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