With Captain Chesley Sullenberger’s heroism that made the Miracle on the Hudson the aviation event of 2009, are airline pilots really the be-all-end-all of civil aviation safety?
By: Ringo Bones
For everyone who had read Highest Duty, the book written by Captain Chesley Sullenberger on the events that led to his and his co-pilot’s heroism back in January 16, 2009. It seems that the extremely low accident rate of air travel – in comparison to driving on the road – may be attributed to the professionalism of our dedicated airline pilots. Fortunately, it is and the recent introduction of former test pilot Charles “Chuck” Yeager – the pilot’s pilot – on Captain Sullenberger’s book is a much needed reassurance that the world needs on a populace increasingly fearful of air travel – due to high airfares or otherwise. The heroic action of Captain Sullenberger undoubtedly not only proves that he has the right stuff, but also proves that the professionalism of airline and other civil aviation pilots is the surest guarantee of maintaining safety in air travel given the very stringent FAA screening process the US DMV driver’s license dispensation bureaucracy can only dream of. But had airline pilots recently become the unwitting last bastion of civil aviation and airline safety in an industry faced with budget cuts in the austere fiscal environment of a post-economic downturn world?
It is indeed undeniable that Captain Chesley Sullenberger’s heroism, together with co-pilot Jeff Skiles really deserved the title of Miracle on the Hudson River. Through their training, they’ve managed to handle the potentially tragic bird-strike situation of an Airbus A320 of the US Airways Flight 1549 into a “mere” plane crash that resulted in no loss of life - Not to mention that much-deserved commendation from President Barack Obama to mark a potentially hope-filled administration. And it is this level of professionalism of all pilots in the civil aviation field – from the “mere” crop-duster and air tour operators, to those fortunate enough to fly the US President’s executive plane. That had kept flying the safest form of travel in terms of accident incidences per mile traveled for more than 50 years. But should safety in our increasingly globalized skies just be left to the professionalism of the world’s airline pilots?
Maybe it is high time to honor the contribution of aerodynamicists and maintenance crew in keeping airline travel much safer than highway travel. There is indeed an example when all of these people together with the airline pilots’ training and professionalism managed to avert a tragic incident. Unfortunately, it can only be read – as far as I know – in aerospace engineering and aircraft maintenance textbooks and training manuals.
Back in February 1959, an almost tragic incident happened on a Pan American Airways Flight 115, bound from Paris for New York, was approaching Gander, Newfoundland. It involved a Boeing 707 then only a few months after the model had been introduced into commercial service. The 707, flying at 35,000 feet, were at the time under the automatic guidance of the autopilot. Suddenly, the plane went into a steep diving turn to the right. Unknown to the copilot, the automatic pilot had cut out, as they sometimes do, and the plane was flying without any sort of control. The pilot, however, managed to reach the throttles and eased them back to idle. By then the 707 was fast approaching the speed of sound - which the plane wasn’t designed to do. The plane was now down to 6,000 feet, having lost 29,000 feet of altitude. With a crash only a few seconds away, the pilot pulled back on his wheel and leveled off.
Later investigation of this averted tragedy showed that the Boeing 707 in question, whose aviation-grade aluminum alloy structure designed for an ultimate load limit of 3.75 g had actually survived, without damage. When it was found out the lifesaving – but violent maneuver – subjected the plane to a load estimated to have been 5 g. Back then, the pilot and his crew didn’t receive a fanfare like that bestowed upon the heroism of Captain Sullenberger in 2009.