A Little Insight Goes a Long Way with Sully's Airline Heroics
By Fred Dickey
Oct. 10, 2016
To you who claim men are more gifted mechanically, I’m an embarrassment.
If directions written with the technical stiffness of heavy starch say screw it in here, I screw it in there. If I’m holding a hammer, my thumb is not safe. This talent dearth is not to be admired, and it’s not funny if you’re my observing wife, Kathy, who can only chide me by saying, “Don’t use that language.”
Often coming to my rescue is my neighbor Hubbard “Hub” Rushing. He’s a retired airline captain who could probably use a wrench and screwdriver to overhaul any 767 he ever flew.
The big advantage of his help (other than getting things fixed) is that he tells me stories of more than a half-century of flying. Now, at age 72, he instructs young airline pilots in a simulator, which is almost exactly the same as being there.
Hub is outgoing in a mellow Alabama way. He seems to know half the people in Cardiff and would walk across the street to greet a stranger.
Lately, we’ve talked about his old friend and fellow pilot Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger. Sully, as you certainly know, is the pilot who landed a US Airways Airbus A320 in New York’s Hudson River in January 2009 without human loss. That’s a feat best not attempted twice. Sully’s story is now a popular movie of the same name.
Hub’s career parallels Sully’s in almost eerie ways: Both are Air Force veterans and flew together at PSA and US Airways as senior captains. Hub admires Sully as a pilot who he says handled his crippled-plane crisis with great skill.
He also says — and this should reassure travelers, with no loss of respect for Sully — virtually every airline pilot would have handled it the same way.
Drawing on 43 accident-free years with airlines, Hub deconstructs Sully’s Flight 1549. As an instruction exercise, he has recreated the flight on his simulator down to the details. He knows the route scheduled for Flight 1549 that day — he flew it many times himself for US Airways.
By study, experience and intuition, he knows the way it would have gone down.
The narrative that follows is all Hub.
The plane is on Runway 4 at New York’s LaGuardia Airport about 3:30 p.m. on Jan. 15, 2009. It’s bound for Charlotte with perhaps 15,000 gallons of fuel in the wing tanks. The day is clear and cold. LaGuardia sits close to marshlands that attract migratory birds.
He says the plane takes off northeasterly rising to 2,800 feet in about a minute and a half. First officer (co-pilot) Jeff Skiles is flying the plane. They are about to start a gradual turn when the plane collides with a flock of migratory Canada geese. Each bird can weigh up to 14 pounds with a wingspan of 6 feet.
The pilots can hear the thump-thump of the geese hitting the plane like Kansas hail, but they’re unaware that multiple birds have been sucked into both engines.
Hub says, “The birds’ bodies create what's called a compressor stall. The engines have air and fuel coming in, but the engines are immediately slowed to a stop because of being gummed-up by dead birds.”
Though the sight of birds being sucked into the engines was not visible from the pilots’ vantage point, Sully would have almost certainly put two-and-two together quickly and figured out what caused the malfunction.
But knowing that didn’t restart the engines. Totally uncharted territory.
Hub says, “The captain, Sully, takes over the controls of what has become a glider. He directs co-pilot Skiles to consult the checklist, or what's called the QRH, Quick Reference Handbook. That tells them to attempt to get an engine started. All they need is one engine.”
They have to read a book to tell them to start the engines?
“Well, there’s more to it than that. The handbook is about this thick.” Hub holds his fingers about 3 inches apart. “And there are constant updates. Also, quickly going to the manual makes sure the pilots’ minds are in an organized mode.”
Hub also makes it clear that starting engines on an aloft plane is more than pushing a button. There are many other controls that have to be in sync.
The manual will direct them to a “dual-engine failure” page, which will say little because both engines going out simultaneously almost never happens. It’s a one-in-a-billion occurrence. In fact, it’s never happened on a jetliner so close to the ground, Hub says.
Sully is on his own. If the plane is traveling at greater than 260 mph, unobstructed engines should restart automatically. But at the time of collision, the air speed was only about 210 mph and it’s now slowing by the second. Sully knows the automatic start can’t happen. What he doesn’t yet know is that engines stuffed with dead birds cannot function, period.
Sully and 155 others are now in an unpowered airplane at 2,800 feet. The plane has become a very heavy glider that can stay aloft for only about three minutes.
The co-pilot engages the auxiliary power unit as the only other way to start the engines. That procedure brings air into the ducting that goes straight to the engines. But nothing happens. Nothing can happen, but they don’t know that.
He continues to try.
The seconds tick away and gravity continues doing its job, pulling them earthward. In the 30-45 seconds since the collision, the plane has dropped several hundred feet. The ground is closer, and getting larger by the second.
In less than three minutes, the plane will crash. How and where are yet to be determined.
I ask: The pilots have more than 150 people behind them and with full fuel tanks. The lives of all those people, and their own, could be incinerated in a matter of seconds. What is likely going on in their minds?
“Nothing, except saving the plane. They are alone with an airplane that’s dying, and they’ve got to save it. Nothing else matters.”
Hub says while the co-pilot tries to coax the engines alive, Sully considers alternatives: The only airport option is returning to LaGuardia. JFK, Newark and Teterboro (N.J.) airports are too far. He decides that returning to LaGuardia is too risky. Also, returning to LaGuardia would require a sweeping turn, and that would break the levelness of the plane’s guide, hastening its loss of altitude.
Without power, the huge machine is as ungraceful as a goony bird. And Sully would have enough altitude for only one approach. There would be no pull-up and no go-around. The slightest misjudgment could make the plane fall short or skid off the far end of the runway. Hundreds, perhaps thousands, on the ground could be killed.
Sully acts as he must — quickly and decisively.
While Skiles continues his futile effort to restart the engines, Sully speaks into the intercom to the cabin behind him: “Brace for impact,” he says. There’s nothing else to say. He now knows that unless at least one engine restarts, impact is inevitable.
Hub says that as soon as Sully’s plight is clear, he advises the control tower of the situation and traffic is cleared for an emergency landing at all airports in the area. He owns the sky, but he knows he won’t be heading for a runway. He can’t risk it. Sully is sitting atop a huge bomb, and below him in the New York area are 20 million potential victims.
It’s now almost two minutes since the geese collision, and the plane has descended to perhaps 1,500 feet. Sully has to do something. He looks down and sees an alternative landing site. It’s long, wide and flat. It’s the silver expanse of the Hudson River near midtown Manhattan. It’s almost empty of traffic. Thank God it’s January.
It’s the logical place to set down. It’s actually the only place.
Sully hasn’t given up hope of restarting the engines. The co-pilot continues his efforts until the plane is only a couple of hundred feet above the water. As Sully approaches impact, he lowers flaps fully to slow the plane to the maximum extent possible. That reduces speed to about 130 mph. Even at that speed, the water is like concrete.
As he swoops in, Sully keeps the landing gear up and elevates the nose about 15 degrees so the tail hits first. The plane then belly flops and skids a couple of hundred yards and comes to rest in the frigid water.
The tail is ruptured, so the cabin loses its flotation integrity as baggage spills out and water flows in, but not at a rate that immediately threatens passengers.
Sully, true to the historic role of the captain staying on his sinking ship until the last, remains and assists his passengers into the waiting rescue boats that quickly converge. Everyone is saved.
You’ve seen on TV the images of passengers standing on the plane’s wings, and you know the happy ending.
I ask: Out of any 100 commercial airline pilots flying today, how many would handle the situation the way Sully did?
“Somewhere on the far side of 90,” Hub says. “Perhaps a few might have attempted to turn around and go back to LaGuardia, but I think the vast majority would have handled it exactly as Sully did.”
Could the air traffic control towers have helped?
“There's nothing they could have done. They can't start an engine. You have a choice: You're either going to land on the Hudson River or you're going to get an engine started. But you have to act decisively and fast.”
What I hear you saying — with all respect to Sully — is that this was not a tough deal.
“Not in a professional, procedural sense. However, it's a tough deal to be the one in the pilot’s seat. There are very few things that today’s trained pilot does not feel capable of handling. In this particular case, Sully and his co-pilot were trained to make every attempt to first get an engine started. When that was unsuccessful, and only then, did they decide that an airport return was too dangerous and the only place left was the Hudson.”
How about the airplane? Is the Airbus an easy plane to put down?
“This airplane is no different from any other. They're all reasonably easy to fly. In training, we scenario a failed engine all the time. We fail an engine right at lift-off. We fail an engine on go-around. We fail an engine during landing.
“But we don’t train for losing two engines simultaneously that close to the ground. It’s too remote. Aviation has been around a long time, and as I said, this is the first time any two-engine jet has lost both engines at the same instant at such low altitude.”
Hub nods decisively. “Sully did a great job.”
It was to Sully Sullenberger’s great fortune (literally) that his accident happened on the Hudson River in New York City, the media capital of the universe. Had it happened, say, on the Cumberland River in Nashville, it would probably only receive a brief flurry on network news, a front page photo and a commendation in his personnel file.
The media, with heavy breathing, called Sully’s ride the “miracle on the Hudson.” But it was not a miracle, not actually. Just really good piloting — the type of expert aviation that veteran pilot Hub Rushing says we receive thousands of times each day on hundreds of airliners.
In its own way, that’s a real miracle we can thankfully take for granted.
Fred Dickey’s home page is freddickey.net. He believes every life is an adventure and welcomes ideas at email@example.com
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