Short Cuts

Inigo Thomas

For sale, at auction, opening bids welcome: one used airliner in bad condition. No engines, no avionics, no chance of flying again. Missing doors, missing rafts and emergency chutes, distressed cabin, heavy damage to the belly of the rear fuselage, the wings lopped off. View by appointment with the owners, Chartis – a new name for a large section of AIG. The wreckage is in storage in New Jersey; the successful bidder must remove their acquisition within one month of sale or rent will be charged.

Wells Fargo used to be the plane’s owner; they leased it to US Airways, who took out insurance with AIG, who had to compensate US Airways, who had to pay Wells Fargo back for losing one of its assets. AIG hopes to recoup some of its loss by selling the wreckage. The plane is the Airbus A320 which landed on the Hudson River in January last year. Everyone on board survived and Chesley Sullenberger, the captain, and Jeffrey Skiles, the first officer, were given everything but a ticker-tape parade on Broadway. No one had safely landed a large commercial jet on water before, and there was something magical about the photographs of the passengers standing on the wings of a plane in the middle of the Hudson waiting to be rescued, as others might queue for a bus.

William Langewiesche was for 15 years a professional pilot who flew air-taxis and cargo planes across the US and overseas. He has written about how planes fly, about why they crash, and about the way air traffic controllers stop them colliding in mid air. Now, in Fly by Wire (Penguin, £8.99), he’s written about the landing on the Hudson. He is a guide, and a good one, to the complex technical language of flying and to the bureaucracies that keep airlines going. If you don’t understand what fly-by-wire technology does, or is, this book explains all.

Travelling by plane is safe, and it is also cheap, but flying commercial planes has ceased to be the well-paid occupation it was before 1978 when Jimmy Carter deregulated the aviation industry (with Edward Kennedy’s help) and the monopoly airlines had on their most profitable routes was lost. Sullenberger and Skiles have to hold down second jobs to make ends meet. It’s also a less glamorous profession – there’s so little for a pilot to do in the cockpit of a modern airliner. ‘The biggest problem in flying a plane on a routine basis,’ Langewiesche writes, ‘is boredom.’ Which makes the second biggest problem when flying a plane the tendency of pilots to overreact when confronted by unforeseen and potentially life-threatening circumstances. If excitement is what a commercial pilot is after, he’s more likely to find it working bush planes in Africa, flying supplies and international aid workers to remote hospitals, or running drugs through South and Central America or over Eastern Europe.

Langewiesche admonishes those who believe the landing on the Hudson was a consequence only of Sullenberger’s quick thinking. Sullenberger was admirably cool, but he was aided enormously by the plane he commanded. For Langewiesche the unsung hero of US Airways Flight 1549 is the Airbus A320.

Sullenberger and Skiles took off from LaGuardia heading northeast. Skiles was in command. ‘What a view of the Hudson today,’ Sullenberger said soon after the plane was airborne – he saw the river through the window to his left. The plane turned north, then northwest, and at about 3000 feet over the Bronx, a minute and a half into the flight, it flew into a flock of Canada geese, several of which were ingested by the engines. There are a great many collisions between birds and planes, but most bird strikes don’t knock out all of a plane’s engines. (Just a few days after the Hudson crash landing I drove out to Kennedy and saw such a vast flock of geese sitting on the verge of a road running into the airport that it seemed completely miraculous that planes outbound from New York didn’t land in the drink every day.)

The right engine of Flight 1549 was instantly destroyed, and though the left engine didn’t entirely give up, it hadn’t the power to keep the plane aloft. Sullenberger took over from Skiles. One of his first decisions was to turn on the auxiliary power unit, a small turbine engine in the tail that also drives a generator. For Langewiesche, turning on that engine was critical to the remaining three and a half minutes of the flight. The generator does not on its own keep a plane in the air, but it supplies electricity to the cockpit and – crucially – to the plane’s computers. These look after the plane’s flight surfaces: the slats and flaps on the wings, the ailerons that steady a plane and keep its wings level and make it turn, the rudder on the tail as well as the rear wings – all of which prevents the wings from stalling. That’s Langewiesche’s big point: the computers freed Sullenberger and Skiles to concentrate on the decisions they had to make as the plane came down.

The main problem was the landing place. LaGuardia was surrounded by too many obstacles while Newark and Teterboro (a small airport used by corporate jets and light aircraft) were beyond reach. That left the Hudson as Sullenberger’s one choice – only the Hudson is a working river and its lower reaches are far from empty. Liners dock at the West Side piers with regularity, often taking up the width of the river to turn into or out of the berths. There are the river taxis and the ferries to and from New Jersey; there are the barges and tugs, the freighters steaming up and downriver. There are the helicopters and light aircraft that buzz overhead. There’s the detritus – whole trees tumble down into the Hudson. And then there are the ice floes. A day or two after Sullenberger landed his plane, the temperature sank on the eastern seaboard and the river was packed with ice. Had the cold front arrived a few days earlier, a safe landing on the river might have been near to impossible. On that day, on that afternoon, and at that minute there was nothing on the Hudson.