"Fly By Wire' and that "miracle’ on the Hudson

That Airbus landing on the Hudson: Not so seat-of-the-pants after all

Miracles, by their very definition, don't occur every day. Such as what occurred at 3:30 p.m. on Thursday, January 15, 2009, when a crippled US Airways Airbus A320 airliner made the most extraordinary water landing in aviation history in the middle of the Hudson River, and all of the 155 passengers and crew survived.

Even before the normal local and network evening news broadcasts began at their usual times an hour or so later, reporters and Internet bloggers and twitterers, were bandying about the "M" word. By the 6 p.m. newscasts, everyone had pretty much settled on what to call the landing, complete with flashy graphics and animated titles: "The Miracle on the Hudson."

The "M" word, of course, implicitly if not explicitly implied that some kind of divine or at least vaguely mystical intervention was involved. How else to explain it? After all, everyone knows that anytime an airplane goes down, people die— usually everyone on board.

No doubt that's why jaded air travelers tend to shrug off the FAA-mandated safety spiel before every flight. If anything happens, we're all dead anyway, so who the hell do those perky, smiling flight attendants think they're kidding?

Good old-fashioned human skill

Think again, says journalist William Langewiesche, international editor for Vanity Fair and, not incidentally, an experienced pilot himself. His new book, Fly By Wire: The Geese, the Glide, the Miracle on the Hudson, refrains from using scare quotes around the "M" word in his title. But the thesis of this slim, lively account makes it quite clear that if what happened on that frosty New York afternoon was indeed a miracle, it was one born not out of divinity but of design (of the aircraft and the systems that controlled and directed it), dedication (of the crew, the air traffic control system, and the engineers and scientists who created the Airbus), and, yes, a fair amount of good old-fashioned human skill, courage, and extraordinary ability in the persons of Captain Sully Sullenberger, his copilot Jeffrey Skiles, and the rest of his crew.

Through a series of authoritative books and magazine articles, Langewiesche has established himself as perhaps our best chronicler of modern technology and our sometimes troubled relationship with it: not just the nuts and bolts, but all the social, cultural, political and human implications of the marvelous tools humanity has created for itself. His customary approach is to interweave a narrative account of a particular incident or individual— the tragic loss of the space shuttle Columbia or the nefarious doings of the rogue Pakistani nuclear engineer A.Q. Khan, for example— with more ruminative and descriptive background material that serves to illustrate and expand upon the main story.

This technique works especially well here, since Langewiesche has such a dramatic and highly focused event to work with in the six minutes that elapsed from Flight 1549's departure from LaGuardia to its ditching in the Hudson.

Beyond the cockpit

The book begins with that departure and the subsequent multiple bird strikes that ravaged the turbojet engines of the unlucky Airbus 320. By the time Sullenberger has brought his airplane down on the water at the end of the book, Langewiesche has taken us from that tense yet preternaturally calm and professional cockpit to introduce us to the people who study and try to dissuade the birds that tend to flock in crowded airways (sometimes, alas, using drastic tactics such as smashing eggs in nests or simply shooting them); to the labs that test and certify aircraft engines to withstand the inadvertent ingestion of winged creatures (again, requiring some rather distasteful methods); and to examine in detail several other notable incidents in which jet airliners were suddenly and unexpectedly transformed into multi-ton gliders, yet— usually— survived the experience.

Key to his story is the development and slow but steady acceptance of what's known as "fly by wire" technology— in essence, computer control of vital flight functions and maneuvers.

Unsung heroes

There's no question that Sully Sullenberger and his crew richly deserve all the accolades they've received. But (as Sully himself has said many times) it's wrong to give him all the credit. The passengers of Flight 1549 also owe their lives to a French test pilot and engineer named Bernard Ziegler, to the Airbus engineers who created the A320 and its fly-by-wire systems, even to people who fire dead chickens into airplane engines with pneumatic cannons.

Fly By Wire is a quick and gripping read that provides a more nuanced perspective on a remarkable event, showing that neither Hollywood heroics nor a divine miracle saved those 155 lives: It was the confluence of a great many people being very conscientious, very good at their jobs, and just plain smart.

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