Sully

Two airline incidents remain vivid memories. Both happened on frigid January days. Both involved water. Both were terrifying low altitude disasters. They also had two very different outcomes.

On January 13, 1982 a Boeing 737 carrying 74 passengers and five crew crashed into the busy 14th street bridge in Washington DC before plunging into the Potomac River. One reason this crash has stuck in my mind so clearly is that I had dreamed of a plane crash the night before that. I regularly have airplane crash dreams, so I don’t believe this was an incidence of prescience, but with that anxious dream memory in my mind the crash was especially disturbing.

The outcome of this 1982 crash was that four of the five crew members died including the two pilots, 70 of the 74 passengers died, and four motorists who had been driving across the bridge were killed. The cause of the crash was, as is so often the case, due to multiple variables involving snow, ice and improper de-icing. But the main cause was that neither the pilot, nor the co-pilot, had much experience flying in those conditions and in spite of realizing that the plane was covered in ice they went ahead and tried to take off anyway.  They failed.

Compare that to January 15, 2009, eight years ago today, when Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger successfully landed an airplane with no working engines on the Hudson River without hitting the George Washington bridge, without causing any injury to non-passengers and saving the lives of all 155 people aboard. I watched the news footage about this on the day it happened with appropriate awe. And yesterday, without realizing that it was the day before the anniversary of this incredible feat, I watched the film titled “Sully” and have been unable to stop thinking about it.

In this situation, an unpredictable event occurred that could not have been anticipated. The plane ran right through the middle of a flock of Canada Geese and lost all power to both engines. But unlike the Potomac crash, Sully had 42 years of flying experience. He and his first officer worked together in a trusting, coordinated way. And he knew what his options were and was able to run through them to make life saving decisions in the less than 5 minutes that flight was in the air. He had 308 seconds to do what he did. He also had the able assistance of his crew after the landing, where he stayed until he was certain everyone has been taken off the plane. He left last. He then insisted on waiting several hours after the landing to make sure that all 155 people were safe.

The movie version of “Sully” is not completely accurate. It makes the National Transportation and Safety Board standard inquiry required after any airplane incident into a McCarthy type trial, which is not what happened. As a former Fed, I am admittedly sensitive to the ease with which government employees are routinely vilified for doing their jobs. That said, the movie and the memories gave me something I really need right now, a story about a real American hero.

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