“My Aircraft”

Sully, as an Air Force Academy cadet, in 1973.Photo: USAF Academy/AP

Modern piloting is built on routines. Hundreds of millions of man-hours have been poured into analyzing every possible eventuality, stripping it of risk and mapping out what to do on the rare occasion when something does go wrong. On the afternoon of January 15, Chesley B. Sullenberger III was following the routine. He reported for work at La Guardia at the appointed hour. He reviewed the standard preflight data: weight and balance figures; the amount of fuel needed to get to Charlotte, North Carolina; the takeoff, climbing, and cruising speeds. A few seconds before 3:25 p.m., the tower cleared US Airways Flight 1549 for takeoff. Sully’s first officer, Jeffrey Skiles, was at the controls. They trade off, and it was his turn. Skiles hit the throttle. Sully called out the appropriate speeds. And at 3:25, they were aloft over the Bronx, headed out toward the Biggy Intersection, the navigational fix over New Jersey that steers them clear of Newark air traffic. From Biggy, they’d veer south over D.C. to North Carolina. The controller cleared them to climb to 15,000 feet. Sully acknowledged. The skies were clear and calm. For Sully, this was the last leg of a four-day workweek. It had all the makings of a milk run.

Sully saw the birds a second before they hit—at 3:27 p.m., a huge flock of them. His first impulse was to duck. He heard them connect—thump! Then he smelled them. There was no mistaking it. Every pilot with enough flight hours has smelled burning birds. There’s usually not much more to a bird strike than that—maybe a little hiccup in the hum of the engines before the plane keeps on climbing. But this was different. This time, the craft lurched, and then there was silence. Sully had probably experienced something like that long ago, as a trainee, when his instructor leaned over, shoved the throttle into idle to mimic the loss of engine power, and asked, “Okay, now what?” But this wasn’t a lesson. This was real engine failure—both engines. Sully was 3,200 feet in the air, without power, slowly falling to Earth with 150 passengers and four other crew members onboard. For the first time that day, the captain took control of the plane.

“My aircraft,” Sully said.

“Your aircraft,” said the first officer.

Pilots have rules even for falling, and Sully set about following them. He lowered the nose so the plane would glide, not drop quickly. He ordered the first officer to start into a three-page checklist of procedures for restarting both engines, even though he must have known that was hopeless. He radioed the controller to report the bird strike. “Ah, this is Cactus 1549, hit birds, we lost thrust in both engines. We’re turning back toward La Guardia.”

The controller ordered the La Guardia tower to stop all departures. “It’s 1549. Bird strike. He lost the thrust in the engines. He’s returning immediately.” It was 3:28.

Pilots are taught that if you need to ditch, you should land at the nearest practical airport. But Sully didn’t have time for that. He’d been out of power for a minute already; he’d now dropped well below 3,200 feet. The controller asked if Sully wanted to land on La Guardia’s Runway 13. Sully responded: “We’re unable. We may end up in the Hudson.” Teterboro wasn’t a possibility either. He could see the New Jersey airport out of his window and knew it was too far. The rules weren’t useful anymore. Sully had no playbook to consult, even if he’d wanted to. No pilot in modern jet aviation had ever pulled off a successful water landing. The simulators don’t even offer it as a scenario.

He turned the aircraft south from the Bronx to align himself with the river. The George Washington Bridge was straight ahead. Sully had to eyeball it the same way he’d eyeballed Teterboro, deciding if he could clear it. He did, by just 900 feet. Then he had to calculate the projected glide path, and gin up a way to set the plane on the water at just the right angle, so the nose was up and neither one of the wings tipped. If the nose or a wingtip hit the water as he approached, the plane could flip, spin out, or snap in two.

It was 3:29. Sully saw a boat on the river. He wanted to be close to that boat, so passengers could be pulled from the wreckage. He was improvising. Without the use of his engines, he maneuvered the flaps just so to control his speed—enough to minimize impact, but not so much that the plane would drop like a 50-ton rock. And with 90 seconds left, he made his first communication to the passengers of Flight 1549.

“Brace for impact.”

But it wasn’t really his aircraft. It hadn’t been for years. When Chesley B. Sullenberger III was first starting out, 40 years and 19,663 flight hours ago, commercial-airline pilots were like gods. It was the age of Chuck Yeager and Pan Am, and the captain in uniform was a breed apart, on a par with Hollywood actors and professional athletes. The job was prestigious and well paid; kids wanted to visit the cockpit, to grow up to fly. And on a clear but frigid January Thursday, when Sully set his plane down in the middle of the Hudson River, becoming the first pilot ever to execute a controlled water landing in a modern commercial airliner without a single fatality, the age of the hero pilot was once again, for a brief moment, alive. Sully’s deification, which began almost instantly, moved from the Inauguration to the Super Bowl and continues next week, when the pilot is set to appear on 60 Minutes and David Letterman.

But the truth is, in the years since Sully began flying commercial jets, piloting has become anything but glamorous. Automation has taken much of the actual flying out of the job. The airlines’ business woes have led to longer hours and lower pay. Flying is now governed by enough rules and regulations to fill several encyclopedias. The people attracted to the profession today are different, too. Where the piloting ranks were once made up of former Air Force jocks, many of them combat veterans, they are now filled mainly with civilians for whom flying is less an adventure than a job. “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.”

From a passenger’s point of view, that’s mostly a good thing. Each year, hundreds of millions of people fly commercial in the U.S., and fatalities are almost always in the low double digits. In the past two years, there have been absolutely no deaths at all. Changes in the way pilots are recruited and trained are a key reason: In the vast majority of situations, airline-safety experts say, you want the company man, not the cowboy. But then there are the exceptions, the Miracles on the Hudson, the rare moments when it is following the rules, not subverting them, that becomes the riskier course of action. Pilots like Sully who can perform in such circumstances are a dying breed.

Sully has been in the business long enough to witness firsthand the domestication of the airline pilot. In the early days, pilots were largely uneducated farm boys or blue-collar kids who left home to become barnstormers. Some might never have spent a minute in flight school or read a flying manual. But as commercial air travel began rapidly expanding, the airlines embraced the image of the heroic captain, the distinguished man in uniform you can trust with your life. The industry paid top dollar for a new generation of service-academy-educated aviators, many of whom had been through Vietnam. This was Sully’s generation. By the seventies, as many as 80 percent of commercial-airline pilots had served in the military. “When Sully first got hired,” says Keith Hagy, the director of engineering and air safety for the Air Line Pilots Association, the pilots’ union, “he probably made a pile of money.”

The airlines liked military pilots, in part, because “the government had done all that work for them,” says Don Skiados, who has worked closely with pilots for 40 years as a past chairman of the Aviation Accreditation Board International. The military had already tested the pilots’ psychological abilities, emotional traits, knowledge base, reaction time, and ability to make judgments. The only downside of the military background was that the pilots were, by necessity, trained to be risk-takers. “The approach to the mission is that this is war,” says Bob Ober, who worked as a pilot for Pan Am for 25 years and Delta for 10. “We gotta go. It doesn’t matter if certain things are inoperative, we’re gonna take some risks.”

Since that time, pilot culture has done almost a 180. The maverick pilot has given way to the professional—the captain who knows how to put aside his ego and not take unnecessary risks. The change began when the military started downsizing after Vietnam and its talent pool dried up. The pilots of the military made room for a generation of pilots largely educated in flight schools offering four-year degree programs. Candidates racked up flight hours on small commuter planes over Albuquerque and Toledo, not in fighter jets.

The planes also began to change. Where a Vietnam-era pilot could fly more or less by stick and rudder, today’s pilots fly primarily by computer. Sully, for instance, was flying the Airbus 320. On older aircraft, a pilot pulls back on a wheel attached to cables that literally pull the plane up. On an Airbus 320, he pulls back a joystick that sends a signal to the computer’s auto-throttle. If he’s doing it wrong, the computer often corrects him, thrusting if he doesn’t do it soon enough, never stalling if he pulls back too hard. Takeoff has preprogrammed speeds; the pilot just moves a lever into a notch. Practically everything about the Airbus assumes the human factor to be the most dangerous thing about the flight. Incredibly, you can go on autopilot from as low as 100 feet in the air. Although some pilots worry about overreliance on technology and the distractions it can cause, most like a tricked-out plane. Still, there’s no getting around the fact that automation has taken control away from pilots. It’s the same with regard to air-traffic controllers and airline operations. Pilots used to have to navigate themselves; now it’s all done with GPS systems. Pilots used to have more discretion over takeoff times and maintenance decisions; now they’re frequently overruled.

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.”

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.”

David Sontag, a 74-year-old screenwriter turned professor, was flying home to North Carolina on US Airways Flight 1549 after attending the funeral of his brother. From the back of the plane, in seat 23F, he had heard the bang a minute into the flight. From his window he could see flames coming out of one engine. The next five minutes were a blur of fear: the impact, the evacuation, waiting on the wing to be rescued. Before they hit the water, he said a prayer: “God, my family does not need two deaths in one week.”

Last week, Sontag wrote letters to Sully and the rest of the crew. “I tried to personalize each of them as best I can,” he says—even those to the flight attendants in the front whom he never met. In his letter to Sully, he says, he thanked the pilot “for his extraordinary skill and clear thinking and decision-making, and the calm and professionalism he exhibited.” He included words that he spoke at his brother’s funeral, back in New York: “We leave a little bit of ourselves with everybody we come in contact with.” The whole crew, Sontag says, “would live on with everybody who was on that flight—and everybody we touch with our lives.”

Sontag believes Sully did one crucial thing that day that prevented a widespread panic: He didn’t announce “Brace for impact” until it was absolutely necessary. “My feeling is he waited that long to keep people from freaking out,” Sontag says. “By saying it that close to impact, all you could do was put your head down. If that was his choice, I thought it a good one.”

Of course, Sully also might have been too busy gliding over the Hudson to keep the passengers posted. But Sontag prefers to think he was in control the entire time—that it really was his aircraft. So do we all. For many of us, faith in the captain is the only thing that gets us on a plane.

Additional reporting by Jacob Gershman.

“My Aircraft”