Thursday, February 05, 2009

Grace Under Pressure

By now I'm sure everyone knows about US Air Flight 1549, the Airbus A320 that took off from New York City's LaGuardia Airport enroute to Charlotte, North Carolina but ended up floating in the Hudson River after encountering a flock of geese shortly after takeoff. The jet lost both engines due to ingesting geese, and was too low (3200' and 90 seconds into the flight) to make it back to LaGuardia. I've embedded a CBS report featuring a simulation of the flight, including radio transmissions plus some security camera footage showing the jet landing in the river.

Captain Sullenberger, the pilot-in-command, has been singularly recognized for his coolness in the face of emergency, and his presence of mind in rapidly exploring and then discarding all of the alternatives as unviable until only one remained... landing in the Hudson River. As he explained it to the NTSB during his deposition concerning the incident, he didn't want to crash catastrophically in the dense New York metropolitan area, couldn't make it to a runway, and so the only choice left was to land in the river.

I don't want to take anything away from Captain Sullenberger, who I think exemplifies Hemingway's definition of courage as 'grace under pressure.' However, the NTSB's full audio of all ATC transmissions does show Sullenberger's stress as reflected in his voice, and his anguish at realizing the impossibility of making a safe landing at Teterboro Airport (just to the west of the river). To his credit, once Teterboro is no longer possible, Sullenberger focuses on his only remaining choice, landing in the Hudson, and then works with his aircrew to put the plane down safely. Great credit goes to Captain Sullenberger, but also to his aircrew including copilot Jeffrey Skiles (who was busy trying to restart the engines and implementing other emergency procedures while Sullenberger flew the plane), and flight attendants Doreen Walsh, Sheila Dail and Donna Dent who prepared the passengers for the crash landing and then helped to evacuate the jet quickly and safely. All of them deserve every bit of praise for miraculously saving the lives of all 155 passengers onboard.

Another unrecognized actor in this drama is the air traffic controller handling the flight. I can't find his name, but he is trying everything he can to help the pilot... clearing traffic, suggesting alternatives... and then his voice is filled with resignation and despair as he loses the plane on his radar and knows that it has gone down. Another controller steps in to relieve him shortly thereafter, and understandably so. I would have given anything to have been a fly on the wall and have seen his reaction once he learned that everyone survived. Listening to the audio gives one a glimpse of how it must feel to be a first-hand witness to a tragedy. I know I had to sit and digest what I heard for a minute or so, even with the benefit of knowing how the story turned out.

Captain Sullenberger and his crew are heroes, ordinary people who rise above circumstances, who keep their heads in a crisis and calmly do the right thing. Yes, we admire grace under pressure in, say, a Super Bowl quarterback, but football isn't life or death where one wrong choice means the deaths of hundreds or maybe thousands... and you can always call a timeout and go to the sidelines for advice. Our true heroes are found in airline cockpits, and military cockpits, on the battlefield, or in ambulances and firetrucks, running towards danger rather than away from it. I think as a country we forget this too often, and it takes a 9/11 or a US Air Flight 1549 to remind us of what we should gratefully acknowledge on a daily basis.

Everyone who risks their life in the service of others is a hero. More important, every hero who gives his life for our country is bestowing a priceless gift to the rest of us. How often do we think of their sacrifice? How often do we honor it by giving of ourselves, by being better citizens and better people... by "earning this?"

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