A lesson to learn from USAir 1549

by on January 21, 2009

The Lesson is in the Location

I imagine by now we have heard just about enough concerning the ditching of USAir flight 1549 in the Hudson. The talking heads on all the television channels have beat the story to death. As far as I can tell, the only thing they haven’t done is track down the families of the geese and get their reactions.

The ditching of USAir flight 1549 in the Hudson river.

I’ve made it a point not to post anything about the event until all the hype wound down, though there were times when some of the newscaster comments made that almost impossible. I really liked that one about the plane floating because it was pressurized.

There have been discussions about whether luck was involved or whether the final outcome was the product of the professional airline training that the captain and first officer had received. Aviatrix covered it well in her post on Cockpit Conversations titled Safety is Not a Miracle. Could any other airline pilot have done the same thing? That’s impossible to say, because  only these two pilots were involved. You’d like to think that any of the pilots operating at that level could have done the same thing. I’m sure that airline training departments all over the world are developing simulator scenarios to test that thesis. There is no doubt that the flight deck and cabin crew performances will be used for many years as an example of how you would like every off-airport landing to end.

For me, the point where the captain earned his money was not the landing. One would hope that any airline transport pilot would be able to keep the nose up and the wings straight during a landing on any surface. For me, the money was earned when he made the decision in the heat of battle to not try and make it to one of the airports that were in the area. That was the command decision that enabled the rest of the flight to be fairly routine (as emergency landings go) and earned him the respect of the rest of the flying community.  You only have one chance to make that kind of decision. I would like to think I would have done the same thing, but I’ll never know and would rather not ever have the opportunity.

I really hope this event makes an impact on the general aviation community. Every year pilots and passengers are killed when the aircraft engine(s) quit on takeoff or shortly after takeoff and the pilot makes the decision to turn back to the airport. If we as general aviation pilots can take one lesson from all this it should be that it is all right to land the airplane off a paved surface.  Instructors and seminar speakers stress over and over again that trying to make it to a paved surface in an emergency is not always the best solution. Your best chance for survival is to land the aircraft while you are still in control of where it goes. Fly the aircraft all the way through the landing, no matter where you make the landing. If an airline pilot is willing to land a transport category aircraft in a river, why can’t we as general aviation pilots accept that the best place to land our light plane might be a field or a clearing in the trees rather than that runway we just left?

Another area  that was covered in minute detail was the impact that birds have on aircraft flight.  Birds have been one of the threats to flying in the lower altitudes ever since we gained the ability to fly faster than them. Now, with quicker and quieter aircraft, birds are becoming more of a threat, especially around the airport environment. I have to admit that I have hit one or two in my flying career, but never to the extent of the USAir flight. According to an article I read on the MSN website, we may see more of these events, another unintended consequence of government regulations:

The key thing is that we’ve seen a remarkable increase in populations of many or most large birds — birds such as great blue heron, osprey, bald eagle, snow goose, Canada goose,” said Dolbeer, a retired ornithologist with the Department of Agriculture at the Wildlife Services in Sandusky, Ohio. “These populations are increasing because we’ve done a really good job of wildlife conservation in North America for many species, because we’ve cleaned up the environment, gotten rid of DDT, enacted the the Clean Water Act. All good things, but because of these, we’ve had incredible surges of many species that are hazardous to aviation.

What should we take away from all this? First, especially if your airport is near any body of water, keep your head out of the cockpit and watch for all kinds of traffic. Second, review your options for an emergency landing before you apply power for every takeoff.  And most importantly, remember that your best option may be to land off-airport.

Photo credit: Twitter: jkrums

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