The Jeff Wise Blog

No, Sullenberger Did Not Screw Up

“Miracle on the Hudson” pilot Chesley Sullenberger has been so lionized since his remarkable feat of airmanship last year that it was inevitable that some kind of backlash must somehow emerge. Today it seems that that chink in his facade has appeared.

The Wall Street Journal is reporting that the NTSB’s final report on the incident will include the fact that pilots who run through the accident in simulators have been able to return the stricken jet safely to LaGuardia:

…tucked inside thousands of pages of testimony and exhibits are hints that, in hindsight, the celebrated pilot could have made it back to La Guardia Airport. Pilots who used simulators to recreate the accident—including suddenly losing both engines after sucking in birds at 2,500 feet—repeatedly managed to safely land their virtual airliners at La Guardia.

The story immediately goes on to emphasize that officials are not slighting Sullenberger’s feat by suggesting that he should have turned back to the airport:

The results haven’t changed the conclusions of National Transportation Safety Board investigators or outside aviation-safety experts, who unanimously agree that Mr. Sullenberger made the right call to put his crippled jet down in the river. Neither he nor his first officer, Jeffrey Skiles, had any assurance that the Airbus A320—which suddenly turned into a 70-ton glider—would be able to clear Manhattan’s skyline had they tried to return to the Queens airport they left minutes before.

And yet the fact that Sullenberger could have returned the plane to the airport must add a hint of tarnish to his reputation. Had he landed the plane on the runway the aircraft might well have been undamaged (except for the engines, of course) and the media would have had to do without the stark images of passengers streaming from the flooded fuselage out onto the wing. In a sense, it was his very decision to ditch in the Hudson rather than turn back that transformed the incident into such a powerful life-or-death drama. The heroism of what he did is now overshadowed by what he might have done. As a Gawker headline put it this morning, “Sully Could Have Made it Back to the Airport.”

But as any pilot can tell you, returning to the airport would have been a massive error. Even if he theoretically could have turned back to the airport, attempting to do so would have violated a basic precept of pilot training: when you lose engine power on takeoff, do not attempt to return to the airfield.

Why? Take-off is a particularly vulnerable time for aircaft. If a plane loses an engine very early in its takeoff roll, a pilot can apply the brakes before running out of runway. If a plane loses an engine after climbing to a significant altitude, it may be possible to safely return to the airport from which it departed. In between, however, there is a huge danger zone in which there is little time to act and enormous pressure to decide correctly. In this context, it can be all too tempting for a pilot to try a maneuver that he lacks the airspeed or the altitude. As the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association explains on its website,

The return-to-airport maneuver has been labeled the “impossible turn” with good reason: It requires substantial altitude and involves aggressive maneuvering. Taken by surprise, pilots often fail to maintain airspeed and end up having stall/spin accidents. For a gliding aircraft attempting to maintain airspeed, any banking of the wing will increase the sink rate. And the banking doesn’t end after the 180-degree turn. More maneuvering is necessary to overcome the lateral offset from the runway and point the nose down the centerline. Meanwhile, stall speed is increasing with angle of bank. For a crippled airplane already flying low and slow, this combination of lost altitude and rising stall speed can quickly turn a bad situation into a tragic one.

In the heat of the crisis, then, it would have been impossible for Sullenberger to judge accurately whether he would be able  to return to LaGuardia. Based on the transcripts, it’s clear that he quickly discarded the idea. The pilots described in the NTSB report had a year to mull over the options and to try them out on a flight simulator. Sully didn’t, and he knew better than to tempt fate. Rather than try for the best possible outcome, he settled for a safer, suboptimal one. And avoided a real tragedy.

Follow me on Twitter: @extremefear.

UPDATE: A reader reminds me that the AOPA recently posted a video on its website of a pilot successfully completing an “impossible turn” in a Mooney. The accompanying story emphasized that this is something that pilots should not do. Both are unfortunately behind a paywall, but the video has been uploaded to Youtube:

Filed under: Aviation

12 Responses

  1. Stephan Wilkinson says:

    Sullenberger was hardly “on takeoff.” He was at 2,500 (or so) feet, some minutes after takeoff. It’s a phase of flight called climbout. The “don’t turn back during takeoff” business applies if you’re maybe 100, 250 feet up, max 500. At 2,500, you can do anything you want–turn, orbit, split-S, loop…

    I’m a commercial-license pilot, by the way. Have been for 42 years.

    • Jeff Wise says:

      Five hundred feet might be enough time to turn 270 degrees in a Cessna 172 (180 degree to reverse heading, then 90 correction), but an Airbus?

      • Stephan Wilkinson says:

        He wasn’t at 500 feet, he was at 2,500. I didn’t say he should have reversed course with two donkeys out from 500 feet in an A300. Hell, I wouldn’t do that in any of the numerous business jets I’ve flown.

        Nor would I bother to fly a neat little 270-degree buttonhook even in a 172. That’s silly. Do a carrier approach.

  2. mgrady says:

    Capt Sullenberger talked about this at Oshkosh — that simulations had shown that it might have been possible to return safely to LGA after the engines quit. But he said that given the info and options he was working with in the real world, he still believes the Hudson was the better choice for assuring the most survivable option given all the parameters. And the NTSB analysts agreed. I think you are absolutely right, despite what some ill-informed headline writers might be implying, choosing the Hudson was still the best of all apparent options.

    • Stephan Wilkinson says:

      By the way, I agree that he did the right thing. My comment above was simply to point out to Wise that the lightplane “don’t turn back” ethos doesn’t apply to an airplane doing 200 knots at 2,500 feet.

      The simulations, of course, were all flown by pilots, whether American or French, who knew exactly what was about to happen, even if they weren’t told in advance. “We’re not gonna tell you a thing other than that you’re taking off northbound out of LGA on a clear day in an A300.” Gee, wonder who that could be… And I’m sure they stopped wondering when they hit simulated geese.

      I’ve spent enough time in simulators to know there’s a huge difference between handling an emergency you expect in advance and one that comes as a total surprise, and of course Sullenberger’s emergency was a total surprise.

      • Dave Brough says:

        Part of the ‘Sullenberger coverup’ is this business about the “death turn back to the airport”, so Stephen is right about that.
        But as far as the Hudson being the best option, three things spring to mind. First, survival in a ditching is 77%. That means 35 people should have died. Second, ‘situational awareness’. Every pilot still alive knows that ‘rule one’ (after ‘see and avoid’) means knowing at all times exactly where they are and exactly what their Plan B – is for everything. Especially donkey gone. And as you know, engine out is lesson two of every private pilot’s training – right after ‘straight and level’.
        So this: seeing birds, hearing and feeling birds, bird guts covering the windshield, bells going off, engines spooling down, and knowing that Canada geese significantly exceeded the pigeons engines were certified for were – and should have been – the dead giveaway that should have instantly – no thought required – triggered the PIC (Skiles) – to continue the climbing left turn (or perform that buttonhook/carrier approach Stephen mentioned) to translate airspeed into more height, and get safely back to LGA. If they couldn’t make LGA, there was lots of water in the vicinity to swim in.
        Sullenberger was so choked that: he couldn’t remember their call sign, didn’t declare Mayday, stepped on ATC, didn’t use 121.5, didn’t go where he said he was (back to LGA), didn’t warn the crew that it was water, didn’t hit the ditch switch, didn’t drop the flaps, and couldn’t even remember to close the damn doors (“Will the last person out please close the doors!”).
        But he did remember to go back for his flying jacket.
        And believe me, I’m just getting started. My list shows 23 things those guys did wrong. How many on yours?
        Those two are easily the Dumm and Dummer of the aviation world. Instead, they’re touted as heroes, feted and paraded around the world, and getting standing ovations for delivering expensive speeches.
        These pathetic examples of airmanship should be hanging their heads in shame; we should be giving ourselves a collective rap on the sides of ours.

  3. Dave Brough says:

    What do you expect him to say…? He also said he didn’t want to fly over Manhattan which, BTW, was ten miles south.
    This is a man who blew not one, but two airports, and after he dilly-dallied around the sky, God gave him the next best thing – an ice free runway 100 miles long by 2 miles wide – so all he had to do was remember Lesson One (straight and level). Thank Heaven that he at least remembered that. God even put ferry boats less than two minutes away. Thank God for God and thank God for Airbus. I’m up to 27 goofups. What about you?

    • Stephan Wilkinson says:

      I rather doubt that Sullenberger, a Californian, knew that “Manhattan” was actually 10 miles to the south and that what he’d be flying over during a return to LGA was actually the Bronx. By saying he “didn’t want to fly over Manhattan,” he in fact meant he “didn’t want to fly over that city solidly paved with pretty big buildings and apartment houses.”

      Brough, are you a pilot? It sounds suspiciously like you’re a Microsoft Aviator. Experience please, and an FAA certifcate number would be helpful. (Mine is 1720853, which I can recite without even looking at it.)

  4. Dave Brough says:

    Stephen: “I rather doubt that Sullenberger, a Californian, knew that “Manhattan” was actually 10 miles to the south and that what he’d be flying over during a return to LGA was actually the Bronx.”
    I rather doubt it too, Stephen, and it wasn’t only because he was a ‘Californian’. It was because he was not only gawking at the river, he opened his mouth and diverted Skile’s attention at exactly the wrong time. It’s unfortunate that Skiles didn’t have the courage to exercise his right to tell him to STFU when he was yacking on his cell during the taxiing. Chances are good that he would have kept his innocuous, but fatal (for the aircraft, anyway) comment about the Hudson to himself.
    But even if he were looking (check the view from the NTSB simulation), it is clear that the Manhattan skyline, which sticks out like a sore thumb was, as I said, 10 miles ‘down there’.
    “By saying he “didn’t want to fly over Manhattan,” he in fact meant he “didn’t want to fly over that city solidly paved with pretty big buildings and apartment houses.”
    I didn’t know you were qualified to speak for Sullenberger, Stephen, but I’ll take your word for it. The fact is, at the time of the strike, he was already over some reasonably-tall “buildings and apartment houses “– nothing Manhattan-size, though, and these continued westward at about the same proportion and height until the Hudson. However, by making the return to LGA (like he inferred when he advised ATC that he was returning ‘towards’ LGA), he would have been back over water, not the Hudson, but lower Eastchester Bay. It would have then given him a clear shot for LGA’s 13. He could also have – and should have – allowed Skiles to continue flying which, as I presume you know, is the easy part. In that case, chances are Skiles would have performed that carrier approach you mentioned.
    BTW, by subsequently opting for the river, he not only flew over all those buildings and apartment houses, had to deal with a 60 story building (aka George Washington bridge) right smack dab in the middle of his runway. And that was when he had already peed away 2/3rds of his altitude. Not too swift, if you ask me.
    Stephen: “Brough, are you a pilot? It sounds suspiciously like you’re a Microsoft Aviator. Experience please, and an FAA certifcate number would be helpful. (Mine is 1720853, which I can recite without even looking at it.”
    Before I answer, why does it ‘suspiciously’ sound like I’m (only) a Microsoft Aviator? Don’t I wish, back, during my IFR training (20-odd years ago), that I had access to that simple $19 program. I could have saved a lot of expensive time in the air and in the sim.
    But to answer your question, Yes, Brough is a pilot. And not ‘just’ a pilot, I’d like to think that I’m one that follows the aviator’s credo – “Learn from the mistakes of others…you won’t live long enough to make them all yourself”. Which is why, every chance I get, I try to get inside the heads of the guys who, mostly through their own stupidity, successfully remove themselves from the gene pool. And in the case of Sullenberger, those that try. And, in this instance, I’ve smelled a rat since day one, and just want to get to the bottom of things. If it means sullying a national hero, so be it. BTW, I’m now up to 27 cafoobles. How many on your list?
    As for my credentials and experience, I have both US and Canadian tickets, but since I don’t give personal information over the Internet, you’ll have to take my word for it. You could also look it up just by my name. Suffice to say, I’ve logged multi-thousand of hours and share at least one thing in common with Sullenberger: we’ve both splashed down in the Hudson. The difference is, I had the sense to use an aircraft good for more than one water landing.
    That also infers that I have one rating that Sullenberger – and probably 90% of ATP’s do not: seaplane. (Do you?)
    There are a lot of nuances when it comes to water, and given that the earth is two-thirds covered in the stuff and Sod’s law has not been repealed, ask yourself “Shouldn’t every pilot, let alone ATPs, should have seaplane experience? There’s nothing quite like, when the critical time comes, having the training and experience that allows to ‘read’ what you’re in for and how to make the most of it. And, when you’re in the right aircraft, being able to fly, float, and flounder is really a highly enjoyable experience.
    Next question: “Why, in those 7 critical minutes after the strike, was the only communication to the cabin “Brace for impact”? And what should they have really said…?
    As for your being able to recite your cert #, you got me there, Stephen. I can remember GUMP-F a lot better than I can a string of numbers.
    Next question: “If they were in IMC and/or it were night and/or no water (Hudson or otherwise), what would Sullenberger have done?” Good for you. He would have exercised his only option in a New York Minute. Or, rather, nanosecond. LGA. I say that his problem was twofold. First, it was CAVU (or nearly so), which caused his mind to wander, and second, there was the Hudson, which, by his earlier comment, was already spring-loaded it in his mind, so that, after the farting around, it became the only option. Like I said before, thank God for God and Airbus – and the NYC ferry service.
    Continuing, though. There was another problem. This was not a case of ‘Hours of boredom…”, it was a case of years of boredom. Familiarity breeds content, which was why Sully was talkin’ and gawkin’. His wasn’t a case of “sharp moments of sheer terror”, it lasted three-and-a-half minutes. At the time, it must have seemed like an eternity. Little wonder, while they were still sitting in their seats, waiting for their sphincters to relax, he mentioned “Hummm, that wasn’t so bad after all…”. Hopefully, the next time it happens, the next guy won’t want to find out for himself.
    Over…

  5. Stephan Wilkinson says:

    Yes, in fact I do have a (single-engine) seaplane rating, and about twelve others, including type ratings. And I’m not a Sullenberger acolyte, in fact you can read my review of his book in Air & Space Smithsonian, which I assume is available on line.

    Surprised you can’t remember your certificate number, but maybe it has too many digits…

    Frankly, you sound like a FlightSim player simply because you speak from a wealth of make-believe experience, but I’m happy to hear that you actually do fly airplanes. If you’re fortunate, nobody will ever retrieve this thread if you do happen to screw up.

    It’s actually contempt that familiarity breeds, by the way, not “content.” Content is what we’re breeding in this moronic discussion.

  6. Dave Brough says:

    Stephan: “Miracle on the Hudson” pilot Chesley Sullenberger has been so lionized since his remarkable feat of airmanship last year that it was inevitable that some kind of backlash must somehow emerge. Today it seems that that chink in his facade has appeared.”

    About bloody time.
    Stephan, usually he who has the loudest argument, usually has the least. Similarly with those who revert to sarcasm. This is not about measuring the size of pee pees or pitots or anything else other than getting to the true facts of 1539 (oh right, 1549) and whether or not we can learn something that will help keep people alive. I’d like to think we can.

    “…I do have a (single-engine) seaplane rating,”

    Good. That means you agree that every pilot should have one. Or at least some basic training. Right?

    You: “…you can read my review of (Sullenberger’s) book in Air & Space Smithsonian, which I assume is available on line.”

    Couldn’t find it. Got a link?

    “Surprised you can’t remember your certificate number, but maybe it has too many digits…”

    That’s for sure! Not only can I not remember my certificate #, I don’t see the need. Or do you just want to continue the put-downs?

    You: “Frankly, you sound like a FlightSim player simply because you speak from a wealth of make-believe experience…”

    Good one. Care to explain my ‘wealth of make believe experience”? The whole Sullenberger affair has been a wealth of make believe experience, and if you’ll rein in your steed, I’ll take you by the hand and show you. And this door swings both ways: you can take me by the hand and show me where I’m wrong (or how Sullenberger was right).

    “…I’m happy to hear that you actually do fly airplanes. If you’re fortunate, nobody will ever retrieve this thread if you do happen to screw up.”

    Put-down.

    “It’s actually contempt that familiarity breeds, by the way, not “content.” Content is what we’re breeding in this moronic discussion

    You missed it. It is about “content”, or rather “content(ment)”. In the commercial world, flying isn’t hours and hours of boredom. It’s years! And now, when you have a machine like an Airbus not only doing most of the flying, but making critical decisions – like making sure you don’t auger in (or splash at the wrong angle of attack), that’s why guys fall asleep or violate violate the sterile cockpit rule. Heck, those two in the Q on the approach to Buffalo in the dark and in shit were chatting away like they were having coffee. So in this case, familiarity isn’t breeding contempt. It’s breeding “content(ment)”.

    The still unanswered question is whether or not this particular day was atypical, or that being a chatterbox and a distraction typical Sullenberger, because in the space of what, 5 minutes, he violated the rule twice, first during taxiing, and second, just before the birds. And BTW, if you want to see something good, check the NTSB’s transcript of the CVR where they not only removed the Sullenberger’s“Beautiful view of the Hudson”, they added a non-existent “Mayday” (http://www.ntsb.gov/Dockets/Aviation/DCA09MA026/420526.pdf pages 38 & 40)

    Back to the chatterbox issues, it’s unfortunate that the pilots’ unions have succeeding in keeping video recording out of the cockpit. Had it been there, my guess is that it would have caught Skiles eyes following Sullenberger’s lead – down to the fateful view of Hudson – and not where they should have been. That’s what cooked their goose.

    If this is a “moronic discussion”, Stephan, it’s over. But if you agree to elevate it to the level of rational discussion, be my guest. Think of it this way: you might actually learn something. I’ll think of it this way: I might too.

  7. Jeff Wise says:

    Okay, guys, thanks very much, let’s just leave it at that.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

Thinking About Fear & the Brain

If I find myself in a severe crisis, will I be able to keep it together? How can I control anxiety and panic? Is it possible to lead a life less bounded by fear? These are the sorts of questions that I'll be exploring in this blog, an offshoot of my book, Extreme Fear: The Science of Your Mind in Danger, published on December 8, 2009 by Palgrave Macmillan.

Video Introduction

Also by Jeff Wise

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

%d bloggers like this: