Reconsidering the Miracle on the Hudson

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Marco Di Lauro / Getty

Journalist and author William Langewiesche speaks during a seminar at the Holden School in Turin, Italy

By now, the story of U.S. Airways Flight 1549 is practically an American folktale: a miraculous emergency landing into the Hudson river, with Captain Chesley Sullenberger the hero in the cockpit. But journalist William Langewiesche takes a different view of the aborted Jan. 15 flight, which Sullenberger guided safely into the water after the Airbus 320 struck a flock of geese near LaGuardia Airport and lost all power. A Vanity Fair correspondent and former professional pilot, Langewiesche has written the most detailed account yet of the short flight, Fly by Wire: The Geese, the Glide, the Miracle on the Hudson. He spoke with TIME about the near disaster, the media's role in shaping perceptions of the incident and the forgotten star of the fateful flight.

From the start, the popular shorthand for the safe landing of Flight 1549 has been "the miracle on the Hudson." But that's not the way you see it.
Miracle? Absolutely not. It's a catchy, superficial media term. It's almost an insult to Sullenberger: God was not his co-pilot, [First Officer Jeffrey] Skiles was. These were two very competent pilots who did a great job of flying, and they were flying an extremely capable airplane. Sullenberger and Skiles did not in any sense think of this as a miracle. They thought of this as a job they did.

O.K., but even if it wasn't a miracle, surely it was still extraordinary?
In some ways it was extraordinary simply because of positioning: the airplane happened to be above a smooth river — an unlimited landing space — in good weather. It wasn't in some nightmarish situation one can easily imagine: over the mountains at night, [for instance]. This could have been beyond the possibility of recovery.

The other exceptional thing was Sullenberger's power of concentration during the descent. He was flying largely instinctively: a highly experienced pilot completely in tune with his airplane. It wasn't just what he did, it's what he chose not to do — when he chose not to talk on the radio, [for example]. He wasn't bothering with formalities.

Right, though you also say other pilots could have pulled off that landing as well.
I think the general feeling in flying circles is that most airline pilots who live and breathe airplanes would have been able, more or less, to do the same thing. To think this was way out of the ordinary would be kind of an insult to other airline pilots. I know that Skiles and Sullenberger believe the same.

So the idea of Sullenberger being a hero ...
Please. I think we're "heroed out" right now in the United States. Hero is a term that is almost always misapplied in modern America. I don't know if there's a genuine demand in the public [for heroes], or if it's a creation of headline writers and television people.

You write about aviation in more detail than almost anyone in the country. Did anything about this event really surprise you as you conducted your research?
I was deeply impressed by the Airbus 320 and its flight-control system. What Bernard Ziegler did is still surprising to me. [Ziegler, a French engineer, developed the plane's fly-by-wire technology that uses computers to help stabilize and guide the aircraft.] I don't want to imply that the pilots would not have been able to land successfully if the plane didn't have [that technology.] They probably would have pulled off the same success. But this was a particularly easy airplane to fly — it stays where you put it, automatically, in terms of attitude and bank. They were in a magic-carpet machine.

It seemed odd to you that, in all their public appearances, the crew never acknowledged Ziegler or the plane's design.
Having been around aviation all my life, I was struck by that. After a close call, the normal reaction is to say, "God, what a machine!" It didn't happen in this case. I know the people at Airbus were very aware of this and were peeved by it. [The lack of credit] did not happen in a void; it happened in a historical context of the advent of fly by wire and ... the larger decline of the airline profession. That's why the airplane was controversial — it represented a threat to the myth that flying requires some kind of heroic intervention by pilots to keep an airplane in the air. This was deeply threatening to pilots.

You also take issue with Sullenbeger's testimony to Congress that air safety may decline unless pilots are better paid.
His presumption is that if you don't pay pilots well you're going to get lower-caliber people coming in. I doubt that very much. What drives people to fly airplanes doesn't have much to do with money: they'll do it at a low price, they'll do it at a high price. And despite the terrible loss of income and prestige that pilots have suffered over the last 30 years, they are still making a middle-class income.

You detail some other harrowing encounters between airplanes and birds, though you note that most bird strikes don't cause serious damage. How concerned should the flying public be?
Pick your worries in life. They will continue to happen, but it's very rare. This U.S. Airways flight swallowed a lot of geese. It's just not within our technological ability to design engines that can handle that.

There seems to be a lot of fear about flying out there these days. Recently the news media devoted a lot of coverage to the Northwest flight that overshot Minneapolis and the United pilot accused of being drunk in London. Is the danger being overstated?
Of course it's being overstated. People are not as afraid of things as they're said to be by the superficialities of the media. People know what it's like to die; everyone is prepared for it. We're not such cowards as one might believe from all the hysteria on television.