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“My Aircraft”


The airlines have since concluded that the least communicative pilots and crews in crises are the ones that fail the most, and CRM is now a standard part of flight training. Simulated flights are even videotaped and critiqued to maximize collaboration among pilots and between pilots and crew. “In the debriefing,” Hummel says, “you actually sit down with the captain and the co-pilot and say, ‘Hey, when you were having that emergency situation, and you looked over at the co-pilot and said, “Give me the gear now”—how did that come across?’ And the co-pilot can say, ‘Well, he kind of shut me out. It was like he was screaming at me.’ And the captain might sit back and say, ‘You know what? I didn’t know I came across like a jerk. I could have said, “Hey, how about the gear, please?” I could have included him and made him more inclusive.’ ”

At the same time, a pilot has to know when to take over an aircraft himself and simply improvise. Al Slader was the co-pilot of United Airlines Flight 811, a 747 that was en route from Honolulu to New Zealand in 1989 when a cargo door failed, blowing out several rows of seats. With a gaping hole in the side of their plane, the crew was still able to make an emergency landing back in Hawaii. Nine people died, but 346 survived. “We had two engines out, Nos. 3 and 4, same side,” Slader says. “We were gonna go down; it was just a matter of where.” United’s procedure for severe engine damage is to pull the firewall shutoff, he says. “If I had done that, we’d have lost two hydraulic systems”—half the plane’s flight controls—“and we’d have probably ended up in the water. But I didn’t do that.”

In emergency situations, Denny Fitch says, you have to “live by what you can use out of the book, then adapt your airmanship if it’s not in the book. You just have to come up with your answers to problems that nobody ever thought of before.” Old-fashioned optimism, Fitch says, can also help. “My attitude from the very beginning of that incident was that we weren’t going to crash,” he says. He had a clear vision of the desired outcome: “We are going to successfully land this thing, with the wheels down, rolling down a runway, and come to a stop. The evacuation doors are going to open, the slides are going to deploy, and 296 people are going to slide out safely. Then we are going to get ground transportation, go to the nearest bar, and I am buying.”

“Twenty-five years ago, we were a step below astronauts,” says one veteran pilot. “Now we’re a step above bus drivers. And the bus drivers have a better pension.”

When you break the rules, of course, you’ve got to get it right. That’s what leaves other pilots in awe of the Hayneses and Sladers and Sullys of the world. “Pilots are on-off switch people,” says Jack Stephan, another US Airways pilot. “We go through a decision tree, through procedures and training and checklists, and the pilot knows what to do. Captain Sullenberger displayed the type of piloting that’s required when the checklist really doesn’t cover the situation. There is no way to train for this. Clearly this was a hand-flying masterpiece.”

Being lucky doesn’t hurt, either. It was pure chance that Sully had been trained as a glider pilot. It also helped that the sky was clear and the winds light that day. “If Sully had been a mile or so in almost any other direction across the river, he wouldn’t have made it,” Slader notes. “He wouldn’t have been able to glide into the river. So he did a heck of a good job, but there was a little bit of luck involved. Same thing with ours. We were lucky.”

Some experts worry that today’s pilots—with their lack of military experience, their aversion to risk, their reliance on automation—are perhaps less capable of improvising in an emergency. They may be the right men for providing the greatest margin of safety for the greatest number—and in a world in which 80,000 planes take off and land in the United States every day, having that kind of pilot corps makes sense. But what if you are one of the unlucky few who wind up in a plane that’s in trouble? On that plane, you may want the pilot who dodged enemy fire over Vietnam, the seat-of-the-pants stick-and-rudder guy. “I’m not suggesting that a young pilot or new pilot could not handle a situation,” says Jack Stephan. “But would you want your kid in that flight?”

The importance of a pilot’s ability to improvise in an emergency isn’t lost on passengers. Haynes, Fitch, and Slader all stay in touch with some of the survivors of their flights. They have dinner together, see shows, go to ball games. Fitch says he gets a Christmas card every year from a family whose baby daughter survived the crash. She’s in her twenties now. “I’ve watched that child grow,” Fitch says. “The note would include, you know, ‘Look at her, this is the life you saved.’ What a sweet reminder of how they regarded me for my efforts.”


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