On January 15, 2009, a US Airways Airbus A320 had just taken off from LaGuardia Airport in New York when a flock of Canada geese collided with it, destroying both of its engines. Over the next three minutes, the plane’s pilot, Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger, managed to glide it to a safe landing in the Hudson River. It was an instant media sensation, the “Miracle on the Hudson,” and Captain Sully was the hero. But how much of the success of this dramatic landing can actually be credited to the genius of the pilot? To what extent is the “miracle” on the Hudson the result of extraordinary—but not widely known, and in some cases quite controversial—advances in aviation and computer technology over the past twenty years?
In Fly by Wire, one of America’s greatest journalists takes us on a strange and unexpected journey into the fascinating world of advanced aviation. From the testing laboratories where engineers struggle to build a jet engine that can systematically resist bird attacks, through the creation of the A320 in France, to the political and social forces that have sought to minimize the impact of the revolutionary fly-by-wire technology, William Langewiesche assembles the untold stories necessary to truly understand the
“miracle” on the Hudson, and makes us question our assumptions about human beings in modern aviation.
Did A320 cradle Sullenberger's glide into the Hudson?
A US Airways Airbus A320 floats after crashing into the Hudson River on Jan. 15, 2009. (Photo by Chris McGrath/Getty Images)
US Airways pilot Chesley B. Sullenberger III's glide into the Hudson river in January, after birds took out his engines, was more a feat of engineering than flying, according to a new book.
In "Fly by Wire: The Geese, the Glide, the Miracle on the Hudson," William Langewiesche argues the real hero is Bernard Ziegler, who, with his Airbus colleagues, perfected fly-by-wire controls, according to a New York Times account.
Fly by wire guided the decent of Sullenberger and co-pilot Jeffrey Skiles' Airbus A320, keeping the wings level and the nose up, Langewiesche writes. "Like it or not, Ziegler reached out across the years and cradled them all the way to the water."
Pour une fois qu'on parle en bien des commandes de vol d'Airbus...
A Cool Pilot, but the Plane Was Cooler Sign in to Recommend
Published: November 10, 2009
Uplift sells better than unpleasant facts, which is why, I suppose, William Langewiesche’s new book, “Fly by Wire,” has been published with an upbeat subtitle (“The Geese, the Glide, the Miracle on the Hudson”) rather than with the more cynical one its publisher initially intended to use. That original subtitle, “The Truth About the Miracle on the Hudson,” more accurately reflects this gripping book’s contents.
Mr. Langewiesche doesn’t dispute the events of Jan. 15, 2009, when US Airways Flight 1549 successfully ditched on the Hudson River after its engines were knocked out by geese strikes shortly after takeoff from LaGuardia. (All 155 passengers and crew members survived.) Nor does he dispute that the flight’s pilot, Chesley B. Sullenberger III, a k a Sully, is, as he puts it, “a brave and decent man” and a “superb pilot.”
But Mr. Langewiesche does bang a few light dents into Sully’s hero aura. What the public doesn’t understand, he writes in “Fly by Wire,” is the extent to which advances in aviation and digital technology have made pilots almost superfluous, perhaps even “the weak link in flight.” Mr. Sullenberger’s airplane, an Airbus A320, was nearly capable of guiding itself gently to the ground, even after losing both of its engines.
Mr. Sullenberger made a good choice to land on the Hudson. But his actual control of Flight 1549, Mr. Langewiesche writes, was “less reflective of unusual skill.” No knock against Sully, he suggests, but almost any decent pilot could have done it.
Mr. Langewiesche, the author of “American Ground” (2002) and “The Outlaw Sea” (2004) and a pilot himself, seems annoyed that Mr. Sullenberger has yet to praise publicly his Airbus plane and its sophisticated design. He seems annoyed, too, that Mr. Sullenberger has spoken of the problems of automation failure since his flight, while his own plane’s automation “had emphatically not failed.”
“He was no Charles Lindbergh, seeking to make history, no Chuck Yeager breaking the speed of sound,” Mr. Langewiesche writes. “The Übermensch 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.”
That may sound a bit snarky — and this slim book, at its worst, is. Written quickly, it lacks some of the eloquence and steely control of Mr. Langewiesche’s earlier books. (The author is the Steve McQueen of American journalism.) It’s looser, jokier and more digressive, and it contains pointlessly macho asides, like this one about Mr. Sullenberger:
“His performance was a work of extraordinary concentration, which the public misread as coolness under fire. Some soldiers will recognize the distinction.”
Based on an article Mr. Langewiesche published in Vanity Fair in June, “Fly by Wire” is not just about Chesley Sullenberger, however. Mr. Langewiesche uses Flight 1549 as the pretext for a smart, confident, wide-ranging discussion of commercial aviation.
He assesses the low morale at most major American airlines caused by bankruptcies, pay cuts, union strife and the decimation of retirement pensions. He refers to these things as “the insults of an airline career.”
He painstakingly reconstructs what happened that January day on Flight 1549, and spends a good deal of time talking about the damage birds can do to an aircraft. He writes about how the National Transportation Safety Board goes about its work, and about the physics of gliding. The book is also filled with hair-raising stories of other flights in peril, the kind of thing Mr. Langewiesche writes about as well as anyone alive.
He is so familiar with airplanes that his descriptions of how they work are simple and revelatory.
“Jet engines are air compressors,” he writes. “They gulp the outside air, compress it with fans and fire, and shove it out the back at high speed.”
This book’s true hero — this will be an additional insult to some of Sully’s admirers — is a Frenchman, a former test and fighter pilot named Bernard Ziegler, whom Mr. Langewiesche calls “one of the great engineers of our time.”
In the 1970s and ’80s, working for Airbus, Mr. Ziegler and his colleagues perfected a revolutionary system known as “fly-by-wire control,” marrying electrical circuits and digital computers to make almost perfect flying machines. “Within the limits of physics and structural science,” Mr. Langewiesche writes, “Ziegler and his colleagues identified the wrinkles of conventional handling and mostly ironed them out.”
The airplanes that resulted — including the Airbus A320 — are not only easy to fly and filled with redundancies that make mechanical backup systems unnecessary, but they will also not let pilots make certain mistakes. The airplane “will intervene to keep people alive,” Mr. Langewiesche writes.
Because these rare interventions cannot be overridden, they are not popular with all pilots. The fly-by-wire system wasn’t designed to protect passengers from people like Sully, Mr. Langewiesche writes, but from “people at the low end of the scale, who occasionally will be at the controls of any airplane that is widely sold and flown. Unsafe pilots? Sure, of course, there are quite a few, and testing can only go so far in weeding them out.”
This prickly and uneven but plainspoken book will not make Mr. Langewiesche many friends among commercial pilots, about whom, as a group, he is not admiring.
“If you had to pick the most desirable trait for airline pilots, it would probably be placidity,” he says. He adds that “with exceptions, the ‘best and the brightest’ have never chosen to become airplane pilots, at whatever salary, because of the terrible this-is-my-life monotony of the job.”
Mr. Sullenberger may not have needed the help — keeping the wings level, the nose up and the glide smooth — that his Airbus A320 automatically provided him during Flight 1549’s short time in the air. But he and his co-pilot, Jeffrey B. Skiles, did fly by wire during the glide.
“They had no choice,” Mr. Langewiesche writes. “Like it or not, Ziegler reached out across the years and cradled them all the way to the water.”
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