Thursday, January 15, 2009

Heroes and villains

Less than two weeks ago, aviation experts proclaimed 2007 and 2008 the safest stretch in American aviation history. No fatalities were reported aboard transport-category flights in those two calendar years.

Miraculously, that streak continues today.

There's really no other way to describe today's crash of US Airways flight 1549 into the Hudson River. Plane plunges into icy river? The last time that happened, in 1982, rescuers plucked 78 bodies from the Potomac after an Air Florida jet with ice on its wings crashed on takeoff. Five survived.

Everybody survived today's accident.

The pilot, who gently dipped the Airbus 320 into the chilly waters, is a hero. Not only for his aviation skills, but for twice walking the aisle of the plane after everyone else was aboard a ferry or raft to make sure no one was left behind.

As you probably know by now, a bird strike caused failures in both engines, which is just hard to comprehend. Engines are built to withstand strikes from an entire flock. They must pass strict tests, including simulated bird strikes which you can watch here as frozen turkeys are jettisoned into the engines, before they are put into service.

They're so strong that they can devour a human being, as this one unfortunate soul in El Paso learned, and keep on spooling like they didn't miss a beat.

So to have one engine fail in a bird-strike situation is rare, but not unheard of. To have both be hit and fail, I don't even know how you'd begin to calculate the odds.

If the early indications on the cause of the crash are correct, I'll be interested to see if the discussions turn to the Airbus 320's glide ratio. A glide ratio basically lays out that, for X feet of altitude, an airplane can horizontally travel Y number of feet in a no-wind situation.

(When I was flying Cessna 172s, the ratio was roughly 1:2. For every 1,000 feet of altitude, I could expect to glide two nautical miles. This sort of thing is useful for quickly calculating that, if I'm cruising at 7,000 feet above ground level, I know that if I lose my engine, I need to find a spot to land in approximately 14 nautical miles).

There's a great case from the 1980s where glide ratio came into play in an incident where disaster was averted. Air Canada flight 143 was cruising at 41,000 feet when it ran out of fuel -- the goofballs working the ground crew that day had topped off the Boeing 767 calculating the fuel weight in kilograms when they should have used pounds. But the glide ratio was about 1:12 and the "Gimli Glider," as it became known, landed at an abandoned air force base many miles from where the emergency began.

Back to New York today: Not sure what the glide ratio is for the Airbus 320, but flight 1549 was at about 3,000 feet when it encountered the flock of geese. Newark is ridiculously close to the spot in the Hudson where 1549 took its drink, so close that the captain could probably see the VASI lights at the end of EWR's runways as he landed.

Teterboro, the airport where I began my training in 1999, is just north of the Meadowlands and perhaps another after-the-fact option for the US Airways flight.

I don't mean in any way to suggest that the pilots of today's US Airways jet should have pursued the Newark or Teterboro options. I don't know. But I'll be interested to see what the glide ratio numbers are, how tantalizing those options may have appeared to the flight crew and the pilot's decision-making process on ultimately choosing to land in the Hudson River.

Any way you look at it, he made the right call.

Thanks to the flight crew, though, there are 155 people who can say that the worst part of their day was enduring La Guardia, an airport that I have panned as the worst in the United States.

While their actions were heroic -- a description I don't throw out lightly -- there was also a bit of cowardice this week in the aviation world.

You may have already read about the scumbag who crashed a plane in a brazen attempt to fake his own death somewhere in the skies over Alabama.

Marcus Schrenker called air traffic control and reported that he was badly injured after a bird strike penetrated his windshield. He then set his Piper on auto-pilot and parachuted out of the plane. We later learned that Mr. Schrenker was a financial adviser of sorts who had fleeced his clients, and amid a crumbling marriage, was attempting to escape.

It was total amateur hour for this guy, because his plan unraveled in less time than it took me to write this post. Authorities caught up with him just about the time he slid a razor through his wrists.

Schrenker's case conjured memories of another felon who started his run from the law by parachuting from an airplane. Only this one may have succeeded. If you don't know about the case of D.B. Cooper, you're missing out on one of the great American mysteries.

On November 24, 1971, the dapperly dressed Cooper hijacked a jet traveling from Portland to Seattle, telling a flight attendant he had a bomb in his briefcase. Upon arrival in Seattle, he released the passengers but kept the crew, then demanded $200,000 and four parachutes.

His request was granted. Cooper ordered the plane back into the air and bound for Reno. Somewhere over southwest Washington, he sent the flight attendants into the cockpit, lowered the aft stairs on the Boeing 727 and jumped into the cloudy skies. Two F-16s trailing the hijacked jet lost him in the haze.

Cooper vanished without a trace.

None of the money, tracked by serial number, was ever spent. No body was ever recovered. Neither was a parachute. To this day, no one knows what happened to D.B. Cooper. He remains one of the most wanted fugitives in American history.

The parachutes, though, are about the only similarities between Schrenker and Cooper. Their respective stories remind me of the line toward the end of Die Hard when Holly McClean says to Hans Gruber, almost with disbelief, "After all your posturing, all your little speeches, you're nothing but a common thief!"

Hans turns to her in a fit of intensity and retorts, "I am an exceptional thief, Mrs. McClean."

That's one difference between Schrenker and Cooper. But more importantly, I think this is the major diference: Schrenker was a coward who was running away and leaving others to clean up the mess he created.

D.B.? We'll never know for sure, but I think he did it just to show that it could be done.

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At 11:30 AM, Blogger Smokey Robinson (aka Matt) said...

Not only did this man safely glide his plane to a relatively soft and safe landing, then stalk the aisles to make sure the panicked passengers were all out safely, but the Daily News reported that afterward, he was sitting in the ferry terminal wearing his hat and drinking coffee like it was "another day at the office."

His name is Chelsey Sullenberger.

Somewhat disappointingly, another story in the Daily News talks about how the passengers themselves freaked out and clambered toward the back of the plane, which is what caused it to start sinking. That is precisely why I find disaster situations so much less frightening than the sheep mentality of the mobs that usually attend them.

At 9:18 AM, Blogger SJPSandman said...

I wonder what my glide ratio is.

GREAT post, cat!

At 11:30 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

You left out another villain...

Apparently a passenger on 1549 opened the rear door over the objections of the flight crew.

When the rear door was opened, that is what let all the water in. Disobeying flight crew instructions is a felony. I wish someone would prosecute because the dumb bitch that panicked and helped flood the plane could have adversely affected the outcome.


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