Fly by Wire: The Geese, the Glide, the Miracle on the Hudson
Farrar, Straus & Giroux; 193 pages
It took just 211 sec. for Chesley Sullenberger to guide U.S. Airways Flight 1549 to the safety of the Hudson River on a frigid January afternoon, and a New York minute for his legend to flourish. In this slim volume, William Langewiesche lets some of the air out of Sully's soaring mystique. The Vanity Fair correspondent, a professional aviator himself, hails the captain as a "superb pilot" whose "extraordinary concentration" helped save the lives of 150 passengers and five crew members after his Airbus A320 struck a flock of Canada geese and lost thrust in both engines. In the aftermath of the averted tragedy, Sully became a national hero, feted by all but a few stray critics carping over his inevitable book deal and talk-show victory lap. Langewiesche isn't one of those but he does intend to spread the praise around.
1. On why Sully was deemed a hero: "He was no Charles Lindbergh seeking to make history, no Chuck Yeager breaking the speed of sound. The Ubermensch era of aviation had long since faded. But he crashed during a slump in the American mood, and overnight he was transformed into a national hero, at a time when people were hungry for one."
2. Appraising Sully's performance: "Chesley Sullenberger's qualities emerged in full force during the first few seconds of his emergency over the Bronx. In retrospect, what mattered most to his ultimate success was not what he did, but what he chose not to do, his shedding of distractions, the concentration that he brought to the crisis. It was an exceptional performance, easy enough to dream up in the abstract, but extremely difficult to execute in practice. His physical control of the airplane, however, is another matter, and though nearly flawless, less reflective of unusual skill."
3. On the difficulty of the feat, and how the aircraft itself made an impact: "Imagine trying to disarm a bomb while also having to deal with menial chores and talk on the phone at the same time. Sullenberger and [co-pilot] Jeffrey Skiles disarmed a bomb on a three-minute fuse. They did it by concentrating on the two really important matters how to get the engines started, and where to land. They could have done it in a Boeing, too. But it was helpful to their immediate cause that they were working with the product of [Airbus engineer Bernard] Ziegler's mind, in which computers took care of the menial chores, then conjured up a magic carpet for them to fly."
Langewiesche, acclaimed author of such books as American Ground: Unbuilding the World Trade Center and Inside the Sky: A Meditation on Flight, has little use for hagiography or hero worship. But his meticulous breakdown of the fateful flight is highly complimentary to Sullenberger. One exception is the author's puzzlement over why such an experienced pilot chose not to apportion credit to his aircraft, whose "fly by wire" automation helps pilots handle basic tasks and is capable of overriding human fallibility. Sullenberger bristled at the suggestion that the plane deserved credit, arguing on Nov. 15 that the book "greatly overstates" the importance of the technology in the cockpit. For his part, Langewiesche seems to believe such gripes stem from a battered industry's anxiety of influence; in his view, they are "really about ceding authority to machines, and the inexorable decline of a once-proud profession." Even with a vast aquatic runway at their disposal a luxury that Langewiesche suggests would have enabled any equally skilled pilot to duplicate Sullenberger and Skiles' accomplishment he makes clear that the plane's crew members have much to be proud of. The book is not a takedown, but rather a reminder that opportunity, not valor, is perhaps the better part of heroism.
The Verdict: Skim.