The state of the airline industry has also diminished pilots’ status. The modern era of airline mergers and bankruptcies and rising fuel costs has meant extended flying schedules, wage freezes, and pension cuts. Today starting salaries at some airlines are as low as $25,000. Sully’s retirement plan was taken away during one airline bankruptcy, and over two decades, his pay has increased by just 6 percent. “Pilots are being treated as a commodity,” says Gary Hummel, training committee chairman for the U.S. Airline Pilots Association. “Until you need them to park a plane in the Hudson. Then you say, ‘Hey, there might be more to this job.’ ”
Pilots and pilot advocates worry that great aviators may be being bred out of the system. “I have a son who is 27 and a software engineer,” says Hummel. “I have a daughter who is 25 and is a professional nurse. They both graduated from good colleges. Both of them have flown an airplane, but I told them, ‘Find another profession, because you won’t be able to feed your family or have a retirement in this one.’ My daughter earned more in her first year as a nurse than Jeff Skiles, Sully’s first officer on Flight 1549, earns after eighteen years of dedicated service with US Airways. Why would I encourage them to be a professional pilot?”
Pilots have a hard time making a case about the potential effects of all of these changes, because the airlines’ safety records are so impressive at the moment. “You go and argue with either the public or the CEOs that there’s going to be an impact on safety at some point,” says Bob Ober. “The statistics make it hard to make that case to someone who isn’t intimately acquainted with day-to-day operations, sitting in the cockpit next to people. But the guys in the industry know it’s got to.”
So what does happen when the unexpected happens? In an emergency, what separates a great pilot—a Sully—from one who fails catastrophically?
Keeping calm is clearly an essential factor, but what’s that a function of? In 1989, United Airlines Flight 232, a DC-10 piloted by captain Al Haynes, crash-landed in Iowa at Sioux City Airport. The craft had lost one engine and all three hydraulic systems, forcing an emergency landing. One hundred and eighty-five people survived the crash. In part, self-preservation is what helped keep Haynes calm, he says. “Panic just won’t do you any good. From day one, you know that if you panic, you’re dead.” Not only does piloting self-select for people who tend to handle stress effectively, but the airline industry has developed sophisticated systems for ferreting out candidates who aren’t unusually self-possessed. “When I was hired,” says one retired commercial pilot, “you got hired on the basis of your qualifications, your interviews, and that was it. Now you see a shrink, you’ve got batteries of psychological tests, you’ve got an interview process to go through with very sophisticated questioning.”
The thousands of training hours pilots log also help them numb their stress, Haynes says. “By constantly being retrained, and going through all kinds of different problems and having to do it calmly and efficiently, that just sticks with you. So when the time comes that something really goes wrong, that’s inherent in you and you just do it.” Today’s flight simulators can mimic almost any situation. “They’re actually a little more difficult to fly than the airplane, so if you can fly the simulator, then you can certainly fly the airplane.”
In recent years, the old paradigm of the lone pilot’s single-handedly saving the day has been discredited in favor of assiduous collaboration. The approach is known as Crew Resource Management, and it’s seen as another critical tool for successfully managing a crisis. Haynes’s United Flight 232 is taught as a case study in CRM. Denny Fitch was a flight instructor and check airman who happened to be a passenger on Flight 232. When Fitch sent word to the cockpit that he was intimately familiar with the systems of a DC-10, Haynes brought him forward, and he and the rest of the crew worked together. “Any other captain probably would have said, ‘Why don’t you shut the hell up? I’m busy up here,’ ” says Gary Hummel. “But Captain Haynes said, ‘Absolutely. I’ll take all the help I can get.’ ” It was only by working together—Fitch had knowledge of the plane’s hydraulic systems that proved critical—that Haynes and the others managed to jury-rig an effective solution. “If you read the cockpit transcript, there’s no arguing at all,” Haynes says. “None of us knew what to do, and we’re just working together to find a way to get the thing down to the ground.”