Saturday, January 17, 2009

Thoughts on USAirways 1549.....

While it may be interesting to a number of people, I've never thought of my life as an airline pilot as particularly interesting (and certainly not heroic). I don't often write of my airline life because in many ways, it is just a job, and if I do it well, it is a very boring job. An exciting day at work usually means something bad has happened. More exciting=More bad.

Obviously, Captain Chesley B. "Sully" Sullenberger III did everything perfectly. What is only now becoming obvious to most is that so did his crew.

The World assumes that I know how to fly my airplane within the envelope that it can be flown. My FAA and my company assume this; My passengers assume this; My crew assumes this; and most importantly--I assume this. Like everyone else in your own work, I have my good days and my bad days, but I always know that everyone assumes, at a minimum, that I can operate the machine.

However, the biggest job an airline captain has is not with operating the machine, but rather in leading his crew.

I work with some of the most capable First Officers I can imagine. "First Officers" is really a misnomer. A more apt title would be "Co-Captain". With very few exceptions, these guys are capable of making each decision that I am called on to make.

But I don't always agree with these guys. Some of them are liberals and want all the things that liberals want. Some of them are bitter about all the changes we have seen in our profession. There are those who walk around with "baggage" (no pun intended). I don't even like some of them.

However, I always have to find a way to work with these guys. It is up to me to form The Team.

A couple of anecdotes...

When I was in the military flying C-130s, I had one of my last trips as a copilot with an Aircraft Commander (the guy in charge) with a guy named "Steve". Steve was a nice enough guy...a little "different", but not overtly unpleasant. I went to college with Steve. However, Steve was fairly regimented. If there were five acceptable techniques to accomplish a given task, most guys will watch another perform that task and think: "OK. That's not the way I might have done it, but it worked none-the-less." Not Steve. If Steve had a technique, it meant that he wanted you to use it. It didn't matter to Steve if you wanted to do things another way. It was his way or the highway.

Anyhoo, I launched off on this six-day trip with Steve, and we weren't airborne 20 minutes and he had the entire crew alienated. Each of us spent the next 6 days doing our jobs and no more. There was little conversation, and there was no way I was going to cover for a mistake that Steve was about to make. Likewise the Nav (navigator) and the Flight Engineer and the Loadmaster. We were on the same airplane, but we were not a crew.

This was all Steve's fault.

Second anecdote....

I am not tooting my own horn here. Really.

On one of my last Tactical flights as a C-130 A/C, I picked up a load of Navy SEALs to bring them up to our dropzone for some parachute practice for them and us. We got to practice delivering paratroopers--they got to practice jumping out of a plane. For a number of reasons, the dropzone was located right next to the runway at Clark AB--as in less than a mile from the end of the runway. Our procedures had us calling the tower for entry into the airport area before the airdrop. The plan that day was fly a low level to get to the dropzone and then to make about 4 passes over the dropzone, each time dropping out 4-6 SEALs. After each drop, we'd make a left hand turn to fly a "race-track" pattern to set up for the subsequent group. The run in for the airdrop was on a heading converging with the runway centerline at about 30 degrees.

Anyhoo, seconds after the first group was clear of the left troop door, my #2 engine (inboard engine on the left wing) just quit. And quit hard. This was my first airborne engine failure, and I had always expected that an inboard engine failure would be felt as a loss of thrust, but not that much of a yaw. This failure came to me as both.

An engine which fails will often fling parts of itself all over the place. The engines are designed to spew those parts into the airflow which will take the exploding parts aft of the plane. One of my initial concerns (which, thankfully, turned out to be baseless) was that parts of this failing engine might have injured the SEALs who had just jumped out the door only feet from the engine that had just failed. There really wasn't much I could do about it, but it was a concern none-the-less.

My next concern was getting this airplane on the ground. As it turns out, we were less than 2 miles from the end of the runway.

And I'll tell you folks, it was simply amazing to watch my crew work.

The Loadmaster got the remaining jumpers back into their seats and ready for landing. Once we had "caged" the engine, he scanned it for any other issues. The Flight Engineer and Co-pilot were the busiest. They had emergency checklists and normal landing checklists to run in a very, very compressed time frame.

And they got it done. All of it. For me, it was a piece of cake. All I had to do was fly the plane. It was they who were doing all the work. They were the real heros.

Prediction: When we do finally hear what "Sully" has to say about his water landing, I predict he will say much the same thing. I know that his crew--the now named First Officer
Jeff Skiles, and the Flight Attendants--did far more than the public is now aware of to make this episode into a "Miracle on the Hudson" the miracle that it was. "Sully" will get the credit, but if I'm right, it is the crew which deserves it.

Water landings....

Gawd, I hate that term. [And Double-Gawd, do I wish Blogger had a strike text feature.] The end of USAirways 1549 was not a "water landing". This is a "water landing".

What "Sully" did was "crash-an-unpowered-airplane-on-the-water-and-have-everyone-live". That doesn't fit well into a newspaper column, but it is far more the truth than "water landing".


As the public is now becoming aware of, birds are a problem in aviation. They have been since Orville Wright first flew a plane.

As a professional pilot, bird strikes are part of my life. They don't happen every day, but neither are they unheard of. Most bird strikes are benign events which require little more than an inspection by a mechanic who will then send us on our way. The .gov does keep records on these things, so there is a birdstrike form which facilitates this.

I can't tell you how many bird strikes I've had. As I said, most are benign. My most eventful bird strike was on a C130 takeoff from Pohang during Team Spirit '85. I took a duck in the #2 engine on takeoff roll, and it took us out of the Pohang Air Races.

However, as US1549 illustrates, birdstrikes do occasionally create significant, and sometimes catastrophic damages.

A couple of videos....

Preparations for emergencies...

A long, long time ago, I wrote a Small Cautionary Note on the need to be ready to evacuate a plane. That Caution still stands.

Folks, if you've read this far, I don't care how experienced a traveler you are, the same basic recommendation applies: Pay attention to the safety video/demonstration. Pull out the safety card in the seat pocket and look at it. Look around for the nearest emergency exit. Count the number of rows to that door. Then do the same for the exit in the opposite direction. Take a moment to touch that flotation device under your seat. Is it in a box or a pouch?

Before you get dressed to go to the airport, ask yourself: "If I were in an emergency today, would these clothes/shoes help me or hurt me?"

For as rare as airline accidents are, you have to assume that it can happen on any day.

Be Prepared.

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