Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Pilots feed American hunger for good guys

Express Staff Writer

The adage about an airline pilot's work—"endless hours of boredom interrupted by moments of sheer terror"—surely applied to the harrowing three minutes and 28 seconds in the life of U.S. Airways Flight 1549's flight crew last Thursday.

In that blink of time, Capt. "Sully" Sullenberger, 57, and his co-pilot, First Officer Jeffrey Skiles, 49, performed extraordinary airmanship that has established them as hero figures for Americans who hunger for people to admire, not deplore.

Ninety seconds after takeoff from New York's LaGuardia field, power in both 27,000-pound thrust engines of their Airbus A-320 was snuffed out by geese ingested into the turbines. Critically low on speed and altitude at 3,200 feet, the jet couldn't be returned to LaGuardia. So Sullenberger picked the icy Hudson River to ditch.

He and Skiles trimmed the gliding aircraft to avoid stalling. They calmly alerted three cabin attendants—granny-age veterans Doreen Welsh, 58, Sheila Dail, 57, and Donna Dent, 51—of an immediate water landing, coolly maintained radio contact with New York Terminal Radar Control, went through the checklist for an emergency ditching, scanned the Hudson for a clear landing spot as they meticulously balanced speed and descending altitude of the powerless 85-ton jet, and ran through agonizing mental exercises on post-crash actions if the aircraft catastrophically shattered and spilled bodies into the frigid water.

Sullenberger's piloting was so expert, the nose-high, tail-low landing literally was graceful and soft. Escape and rescue from the floating jet were textbook-quick at the hands of the super-proficient longtime cabin attendants.

One investigator said the cockpit recorder revealed pilots engaged in "very calm, collected" planning for the landing.

Heroic as the crew was, they'll credit their relentless training. At least once a year, pilots are put through intense, weeklong refresher ground school and "flights" in simulators that're operating replicas of airliner flight decks. They practice simulated engine fires, aborted landings and takeoffs, weather phenomena, engine and structure failure, instrument and systems failures, skyjackings and security, and much more. Nightmare scenarios demanding split-second decisions.

(I observed crew training in a pre-U.S. Airways America West Boeing 737 simulator in Phoenix, plus "flying" several of the easier emergency exercises as "captain" in the left seat. Whew!)

Furthermore, check pilots for the company or Federal Aviation Administration may show up for an actual flight and sit in a flight deck seat while monitoring pilots' moves.

Ditto for flight attendants who repeatedly rehearse evacuation techniques.

This should remind passengers: Crews prepare more for safety than merely providing a comfy flight and beverages on demand.

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