William Langewiesche's book "Fly By Wire" is about the 'miracle on the Hudson' - the successful ditching in the river of a US Airways Airbus A320 commanded by Capt Chesley Sullenberger with Jeffrey Skiles as his copilot.
For me the book's fascination was the author's view on what being a modern airline pilot is all about. Langiewische is an experienced pilot himself, and I reckon he knows what the questions are, but I'm not sure about all his answers.
Langewiesche documents the technical and operational details of the event, the aeroplane, and the historical context well.
His attitude to the piloting profession is somewhat schizophrenic. He clearly admires the skill, knowledge and self-discipline that made Sullenberger the pilot he is, and made the ditching the success it was.
But, he argues, most pilots are not - and can never be - Sullenberger's equal. Even more significantly, he suggests that they no longer need to be. Effectively, he seems to be saying, Sullenberger was overqualified.
Langewiesche is fascinated and impressed by the design philosophy of the A320, and clearly admires the man behind it - the now-retired aeronautical engineer and test pilot Bernard Ziegler - and examines both man and aeroplane in some depth.
Zeigler and the A320 are as much Hudson Heroes as Sullenberger is, Langiewische argues.
For a taste of what I'm getting at, try these quotes:
The A320 is: "...the world's first semi-robotic airliner".
Airline piloting today is: "a profession already in decline".
The A320 has to be designed like it is, Langewiesch argues, because most pilots are much more likely to screw up dangerously, whether in a Boeing or an Airbus, than the automated systems are to fail in a way that matters. He gives examples of specific accidents involving older, traditionally controlled Boeings which would almost certainly not have happened if the aircraft had been a fly-by-wire Airbus.
For an aviator this can be inflammatory stuff. Many aviators tend to be in the Airbus or the Boeing camp. I'm not in either one. Such problems as modern pilots face will certainly be more effectively managed in the latest Airbuses and Boeings than in anything that preceded them.
Where I diverge from Langewiesche's thesis [my interpretation of it] is that I believe, for a long time to come, pilots of Sullenberger's quality are actually still needed when things go wrong. Langewiesche seems to have been seduced by the impressive quality of today's airliner engineering, and the fact that they will hardly ever go wrong (the latter is true).
But the key to Sullenberger's quality is not just his thorough training (pre-military, military, academic and airline), it is his thoughtful personality, his exacting approach to the disciplines of his trade, and his sense of duty. His co-written book, "Highest Duty", is not exactly a racy read, but he's not a racy man.
The dichotomy, which I think is what Langewiesche struggles with - and so do I, is that things today so rarely go wrong, and ordinary pilots cope most of the time when they do, so it seems a waste of resources to train pilots up to the Sullenberger level, even if the candidate pilot is potentially the right stuff in the first place.
That, of course, is the dichotomy the airlines struggle with. I myself have argued that airline piloting is, by default, becoming a blue-collar job.
But things on aeroplanes WILL definitely go wrong in future - if rarely. And when they do, I know what kind of aircraft commander I want on the flight deck.