February 19, 2009
US Airways Accidents - Then and NowBy David Paulin
It will be months before the NTSB releases its accident report on US Airways Flight 1549, the "Hudson Miracle" flight, captained by America's newest hero, Capt. Chesley Sullenberger. Until then, one thing can be safely inferred about the January 15 accident: its pilots were far better prepared to deal with the unexpected than were two US Airways pilots departing LaGuardia Airport 20 years ago. Flight 5050, a Boeing 737-400, ran off the runway and into Flushing Bay after an aborted takeoff. Two of 57 passengers died. Coincidentally, Flight 5050 used Runway 31 and was heading to Charlotte, North Carolina, just like the "Hudson Miracle" flight.
Sometimes, fate seems to conspire against pilots -- or smile on them. "Hudson Miracle" copilot Jeffrey Skiles, for instance, observed that "we were lucky" in several respects. One is that it was a clear afternoon -- as opposed to a pitch-black night. The Hudson River was calm, allowing for a smooth splash down. And Flight 1549, he noted, had just the right crew to handle the emergency that presented itself. "Really, after hitting the geese, everything worked in our favor," he said, speaking on PBS's "Charlie Rose Show."
On Flight 5050, on the other hand, just about everything that could go wrong for the pilots did go wrong. Moreover, in the weeks after the accident they encountered as much grief from the news media as from their ill-fated flight.
The "Hudson Miracle" flight has handed US Airways an unintended public relations bonanza, allowing it to show off the professionalism of one of its air crews. On the other hand, Flight 5050 was a public relations nightmare. A look at the two flights reveals much about changes over the past 20 years in the nation's airline industry and US Airways -- changes concerning flight operations, flight training, and cockpit design. One thing, however, remains the same -- the news media and what sometimes happens to those whom it praises as heroes.
Captain Sullenberger, 58, may be a hero for the moment, a media darling over whom news outlets are fighting to get interviews. But given the amount of media exposure he's getting, he may soon cross the line into celebrity status, if he's not already done so. It's a dangerous line to cross -- as other ordinary people have learned after becoming heroes overnight.
Then, and Now
It should have been a routine flight that night, Sept. 20, 1989, in spite of the lousy weather. A 500 foot overcast hung over LaGuardia Airport; visibility was five miles in rain and fog. Lining up the Boeing 737-400 on the runway's centerline, First Officer Constantine Kleissas eased the jet's throttles forward at 11:30 p.m. Both he and Captain Michael Martin, a former Air Force pilot, were nearing the end of a long day.
"Here goes nothing!" Kleissas said.
As is customary in the airlines, captains and copilots take turns flying alternate legs, and so it was Kleissas' turn to fly the 737. A brand-new copilot, the 29-year-old Kleissas was making his first takeoff as a line pilot with US Airways.
Suddenly, something unexpected occurred as the two-engine jet picked up speed -- an abnormality that neither Kleissas nor Captain Michael Martin, 36, had ever trained for in simulators. The jet started to drift left of the runway's centerline. As it approached takeoff speed, a strange "bang" and "loud rumble" were heard. Captain Martin, already concerned about the leftward drift, made a snap decision: abort the takeoff. But instead of stopping on the runway, the jet rolled sickeningly into Flushing Bay at the end of the runway.
Thirteen months later, the NTSB issued an exhaustive accident report concluding that an out-of-trim rudder had set off a series of mistakes in the cockpit. Ironically, the jet could have safely taken off with the out-of-trim rudder. The NTSB criticized the pilots for failing to work together as a team, and it faulted US Airways for its training and the pairing of a relatively inexperienced captain with a brand-new copilot.
Citing data from the jet's black box or flight date recorder, the NTSB pointed out that neither pilot even knew what the other was doing during critical seconds; they "were attempting to maintain directional control at one time and neither was steering at another."
"That the pilots of flight 5050 were ineffective as a team is probably the result, in part, of their lack of any formal training on cockpit resource management (CRM)," the NTSB noted. Today, airline pilots are required to have such training, but the airlines in 1989 were still introducing it.
As for Captain Martin, the NTSB said the accident's "probable cause" was his failure to act in a "timely manner to reject the takeoff or take sufficient control to continue the takeoff," and that he'd overlooked the mistrimmed rudder before takeoff.
Team work, of course, is what the "Hudson Miracle" credited for having saved the day. Each knew what the other was doing. Sullenberger, who'd been performing copilot duties before the emergency, took the Airbus A320's controls after he heard the thump, thump of geese hitting the jet and being sucked into the two engines.
"My aircraft!" he said.
"Your aircraft," responded First Officer Jeff Skiles. He then began running through a checklist to restart the engines, as Sullenberger flew the jet.
On the other hand, the NTSB asserted that the pilot's of Flight 5050 pilot should not have been flying together, because of their "limited experience in their respective positions." Martin, who was then commanding C-130s in the Air Force reserves, was a veteran pilot but was relatively inexperienced as a US Airways captain. Kleissas was right out of pilot training, and he'd done no flying for 39 days; so he may well have felt that the edge he'd achieved in flight training had dulled a bit.
Regarding the mismatched pairing, the NTSB stated:
The airlines now avoid the sort of mismatching that occurred in respect to Flight 5050, and that that NTSB also had cited in the crash of a Continental jet ten months earlier during takeoff in Denver. In the case of the "Hudson Miracle" flight, Sullenberger was a veteran pilot, while Skiles -- though also a seasoned pilot -- reportedly had just 35 hours in the Airbus A320.
For pilots of Flight 5050, the trauma of wrecking an airplane was followed by a spate of scurrilous press converge. Some media outlets suggested the pilots had been drinking before takeoff, with one newspaper falsely claiming that Captain Martin was "babbling" incoherently in the cockpit.
The pilots themselves helped ignite the rumors, to be sure. Heeding a union representative concerned about their emotional state, they secluded themselves for some 36 hours after the accident. But by "disappearing" after the accident, the pilots raised eyebrows among reporters and various officials who wanted them to provide blood and urine samples. It wasn't until 44 hours after the accident that they provided urine samples, but upon the advice of an ALPA attorney they refused to provide blood samples, the NTSB noted. At the time, the FAA didn't require such samples.
This was a decade when illegal drug use was a growing concern, and so the NTSB was particularly frustrated at the attitude of the pilots and their union, the Airline Pilots Association. The ALPA did not respond to a list of questions submitted for this article.
Amid suggestions of substance and alcohol use, it was easy to forget that Flight 5050's crew won praise for evacuating their surviving passengers. Friends and neighbors of the pilots resolutely defended them against suggestions of substance abuse.
Indeed, in respect to Captain Martin the NTSB noted that, "Two police officers trained in detecting alcohol abuse spoke to the captain during the rescue operation and saw no signs of intoxication."
Aside from claims of substance and alcohol use, many news articles failed to capture the complexity and nuances associated with an airplane crash. Receiving some new piece of information from the NTSB as it investigated the crash, newspapers invariably ran headlines along the lines of one from the Washington Post: "Co-Pilot Used Wrong Controls, Probe of USAir Crash Reveals." That story seized on a relatively benign cockpit error, the copilot mistakenly disengaged the jet's "autothrottle" at the start of the takeoff roll.
Aircraft accidents, however, are invariably not caused by a single problem or error but by a whole series of them -- including some that would be harmless by themselves. The crash of Flight 5050 was no different.
What caused Flight 5050's rudder to be out-of-trim? The answer is intriguing -- not to mention a little unnerving, because it underscores how a tiny detail can set in motion a fatal accident.
In their report, NTSB investigators spent much time discussing a small knob on the cockpit's center pedestal that operates the rudder trim. The knob, it was discovered, could be moved inadvertently. In similarly equipped 737s, this had occurred when pilots laid items on the pedestal, and when visitors to the cockpit sat sideways on the jumpseat, and then used the pedestal as a foot rest.
Interestingly, a Pan American pilot riding as a passenger had visited the cockpit before the takeoff and sat in the jumpseat. However, he denied putting his foot on the pedestal, although he claimed the first officer had laid a chart holder on it. But the first officer could not recall doing that. Other people had visited the cockpit, too. The NTSB received reports of the trim moving on its own, but it doubted this happened on Flight 5050. Responding to complaints about the trim knob, Boeing redesigned it.
What caused the "bang" and "loud rumble" as the jet neared takeoff speed? It was the sound of the left-front wheel flying off its rim, the NTSB said, the result of the captain's improper use of the nose tiller to help steer the jet back toward the centerline.
Both of Flight 5050's pilots worked with the NTSB to investigate the accident. Kleissas, for his part, ignored the inflammatory headlines. "I went into a total news blackout," he said, during an interview in ALPA's magazine. "I didn't watch television or read the newspaper. I didn't need them telling me what happened. I was there, and if I didn't know what happened. How would they?" Eventually, both men returned to flying status at US Airways.
It's easy when reading the NTSB's report to see Flight 5050's captain and first officer making the same mistakes that many pilots might make in similar circumstances.
Coincidentally, Captain Sullenberger, who's an independent safety consultant, had before his own accident checked out an interesting library book: "Just Culture: Balancing Safety and Accountability." Written by Sidney Dekker, a professor of human factors and safety, the book explores the social and cultural impact of accident investigations.
As Amazon's summary of the book explains:
Captain Sullenberger left his library book on the jet. But Mayor Bloomberg thoughtfully presented him with a new volume during the key-to-the-city ceremony. This week, Amazon listed the $99.95 book as being temporarily sold out.
Captain Sullenberger has played down his status as a hero. He was merely part of a "team effort," he's stressed, one involving his copilot, cabin crew, and the impromptu rescue effort by a flotilla of ferries and other boats. First Officer Skiles, for his part, noted that the passengers themselves were part of that team effort. "The passengers did their jobs. They very orderly evacuated the airplane after we touched down," he said on "Charlie Rose."
The conduct of the passengers is an intriguing element of the "Hudson Miracle" story, and it has gotten less attention than it deserved. After all, the passengers faced the possibility of drowning or burning; yet they made what's been described as a fairly orderly evacuation. In other words, there was no "survival of the fittest" rush to the exits; no ugly scenes of men pushing aside women and children to be the first ones out.
Elsewhere in the world, however, that's how things work: young men often comprise most of the survivors in similar situations. In recent years, that's what has happened when ships sank near Indonesia , the Philippines and in the Baltic Sea. And when a cruise ship went down off South Africa, the captain himself was among the first off the vessel.
Who were Flight 1549's 150 passengers? Just ordinary middle and upper-middle class Americans. Many were young professionals. Presumably, they grew up with the values of self-discipline and civic responsibility. Among them were 23 Bank of America executives and three from Wells Fargo. They and fellow passengers were not the kinds of folks you expect to see trampling over fellow shoppers at Wal-Mart in their zeal to snap up discounted electronics and CDs.
Captain Sullenberger was the last person off Flight 1549, and Captain Martin and senior flight attendant Wayne Reed, 34, were the last to exit Flight 5050.
Interestingly, Captain Sullenberger is nothing like the heroes usually seen in Hollywood films and bestselling novels. In movies like "Top Gun," the hero pilot is a young guy who enjoys taking risks, chases women, and is regarded by fellow Naval aviators as being too independent. The call sign for Tom Cruise's "Top Gun" character is "Maverick."
Sullenberger, in contrast, presents himself as a calm and easy-going team player. He does not fit the stereotype of the fighter pilot he'd been, after graduating from the U.S. Air Force Academy. Soft-spoken and modest, he's an ordinary-looking family man living in the suburbs with his wife and two teenage daughters -- and yet he can stare death in the face.
Hollywood and popular literature aside, it's debatable as to how common the popular conception of the maverick fighter pilot ever was. In reality, men with supportive wives and stable families may well be more reliable and have cooler heads when they must unexpectedly stare death in the face; do the job they've been trained to do.
That essentially was the contention of a well-known wife of a career Air Force pilot's wife, Nancy Shea, author of a popular 1950s-era book, "The Air Force Wife." Some of Shea's readers were the young wives of Air Force pilots -- women who sought her council on adjusting to Air Force life and on learning more about their husbands and their love of flying.
Married pilots need happy and orderly homes to be safe in the air, Shea wrote. "Domestic troubles" may well be responsible for more accidents than thunderstorms or low flying, having distracted pilots from their flying, she warned. She explained:
After ditching his jet, Captain Sullenberger immediately phoned his wife Lorrie, assuring her he was OK. Shocked at the news, she recalled feeling her body trembling, and then she rushed to pick up her two teenage daughters at school.
Now, her husband is a national hero. Or is he? Given the publicity Sullenberger is getting, it would appear he's become a celebrity, or is on his way to becoming one. This poses dangers that are perhaps as calamitous as flying into a flock of geese.
Writing about the phenomena of celebrity in his seminal 1961 book "The Image," social historian Daniel J. Boorstin offered these trenchant observations:
Based on that definition, it's problematic as to whether any man or woman can, while alive, achieve hero status and maintain it. People, to be sure, can do heroic and brave things, but they probably cannot claim a hero's halo until they're dead, perhaps for a few hundred years.
The news media, of course, can be very hard on its heroes when it discovers they are human. That happened to Lt. David Steeves, a young Air Force pilot in the 1950s who was the subject of an American Thinker article last year.
Having survived in the Sierra Nevada wilderness for 54 days, after ejecting from his T-33 jet trainer, Steeves became an instant national hero. He appeared on all the popular TV programs of the day as he calculated how he might profit from his wilderness experience. Soon, however, he crossed the line from being an instant hero to being a celebrity. The media reveres heroes. It tears down celebrities. And that's what it did to Steeves, after discovering he was human.
The news media cannot be so easily controlled as it seeks to keep its audience entertained. Or as Boorstin wrote: "We need not be theologians to see that we have shifted responsibility for making the world interesting from God to the newspaperman."
Captain Sullenberger and his family now inhabit a far different world than they once did - and a more dangerous one, too.
David Paulin is an American Thinker contributor. He blogs at The Big Carnival.