Vanity Fair epic on USAirways 1549 irritates pilots

USAirways 1549.jpg

In the great tradition of US magazine journalism, Vanity Fair’s William Langewiesche , a GA pilot himself, has come up with just shy of 11,000 words (count ‘em) on the Hudson River Airbus A320 ditching. The majority of the piece is actually ‘about’ other incidents, philosophy and science of flight, history of Airbus etc – but nevertheless the author’s managed to annoy the heck out of some pilots and other people. Quite a few have left comments on this Wall Street Journal blog about the Vanity Fair piece. I encourage you to read the article – it’s good stuff.

The passage that’s generated all the heat is the one below, (which mentions in passing Robert Piché who landed the powerless A330 in the Azores, and Airbus test pilot Bernard Ziegler).



Unlike Piché’s A330, which lost automation and flew much like a Boeingduring its glide, Sullenberger’s A320 went all the way to the waterunder fly-by-wire control. That means it handled the constantadjustments and repetitive chores of flight by itself, and responded toSullenberger’s larger inputs according to a regime that is known asNormal Law–though it is “normal” only as Ziegler wished normal to be. Afull description of its arcane logic is beyond the scope of an article.Suffice it to say that if Sullenberger had done nothing after the lossof thrust the airplane would have smoothly slowed until reaching acertain angle with the airflow, at which point it would have loweredits nose to keep the wings from stalling, and would have done this evenif for some reason Sullenberger had resisted. Of course, Sullenbergerdid no such thing. While in the initial left turn he lowered the nosewell in advance of the need for any such “protection,” and went to thebest gliding speed–a value which the airplane calculated all by itself,and presented to him as a green dot on the speed scale of his primaryflight display. During the pitch changes to achieve that speed, ayellow “trend” arrow appeared on the scale, pointing up or down fromthe current speed with predictions of speed 10 seconds into thefuture–an enormous aid in settling onto the green dot with the minimumof oscillation. Suffice it also to say that during the glideSullenberger received no tactile feedback from his side-stick; thatwhenever he left the side-stick alone in the neutral position theairplane held its nose steadily at whatever pitch he had last selected;that the airplane’s pitch trim was automatic, and perfect at all times;that all yaw was damped out; that the rudder was automaticallycoordinated with the rolls; that having banked to any angle up to 33degrees, if Sullenberger left the side-stick alone, the airplane stayedprecisely at the chosen angle; and that, likewise, having returned to astraight-ahead wings-level position, the airplane stayed there too,without the slightest drift or wobble. Thank you, Betsy.

There’s a lot of discussion about whether Sully was in fact in normal law, but Langewiesche has spoken to him and perhaps knows.

Ithink Langewiesche brings much of the criticism on his own head, notbecause of what he wrote above, but because he underplays what I thinkwas Sully’s real contribution – making the decision to ditch. That wasthe bit that took outstanding judgement and mental courage and, moresignificantly, a decision that many other pilots would not have taken.(Of course, they might have been right – we’ll never know for sure.)

It’scomparable to the British Airways Boeing 777 undershoot at Heathrowlast year – Capt Peter Burkill’s key contribution was knowing his aircraftsufficiently well and having the judgement to reduce the flap settingin the seconds available to him to stretch the glide. Plenty – Idaresay most – other pilots could have ditched the A320 and landed the777. But not if they didn’t make the right decision in the first place.

Ifyou’re really looking for controversy, I think it comes in theinterview with Langewiesche that accompanies the Vanity Fair article,and in which there is this nicely incendiary exchange:

If Mr. Sullenberger had been in a comparable Boeing jet, like a 737, would he have been able to make that landing as safely?

I can’t speculate on that. I mean, who knows? I know that thechallenge of flight control in a 737 would be significantly greaterthan in an A320, and that the workload would be correspondinglygreater. But whether this would have affected Mr. Sullenberger’sperformance, as measured by the Flight Data Recorder, or the actualmovements of the airplane, I have no idea. Nobody knows the answer tothat. But we do know that the challenge would have been greater in a737 than in an A320.

The A320 is the magic carpet. It’s the marvelous flying machine.It’s the lead design in a revolution in civil aviation that occurred inthe 1980s–the first truly robotic, or “fly by wire,” civil airplane inhistory. It is radically different from airplanes that preceded it, andradically different from Boeing’s designs, which are conventional intheir flight characteristics and interfaces with the pilots in thecockpits. I had never flown an A320 before I flew that simulator, and Iwas just astonished by the machine. In years of flying, and well over10,000 flight hours, I have never seen anything like it. It wasabsolutely a delight. I had a grin from ear to ear. I kept thinking,”God, it’s a magic carpet.”

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4 Responses to Vanity Fair epic on USAirways 1549 irritates pilots

  1. Peter Keal May 14, 2009 at 8:41 pm #

    This article would be greatly improved if:

    1) Vanity Fair had employed an editor to précis Mr Langewiesche’s efforts into concise English. As it is the article is encumbered with irrelevancies and generally sloppy writing which the result that one has to sift through it for information relevant to it’s theme.

    2) Mr Langewiesche could be prevailed upon to eschew obscenities. e.g. “Fuck it, the airlines”, when mentioning that the co pilot had once been a captain. It is a pity that a magazine of the stature of Vanity Fair publishes such gratuitous bad language.

  2. Xochitl Sampogna December 24, 2009 at 8:53 am #

    Great post, newspaper will have to change and get with the online media revilution or die. It will be a difficult transition for some but an opportunity for othere.

  3. Charlie Bell March 4, 2010 at 3:00 am #

    Count me in the pro-Langewiesche camp. His critic Mr. Keal complains about the author’s “sloppy writing,” yet he himself misuses the word “precis,” writes “which” rather than “with,” and uses the word “it’s” rather than “its.” By my count, that’s three mistakes in two sentences. And he’s complaining about sloppy writing?

  4. AntiLog March 5, 2010 at 5:46 pm #

    Kieran Daly’s comment above (“Sully’s real contribution – making the decision to ditch. That was the bit that took outstanding judgement and mental courage and, more significantly, a decision that many other pilots would not have taken.”) shows a significant lack of understanding of how any pilot with a similar number of hours experience to Sully’s would react.If you are sitting in a seventy ton glider and you’re above the Hudson River at 3,000ft, you don’t have the option – you prepare to ditch. That is, more or less, what Sully said in an interview with The Sunday Times in December.
    I write as a retired airline pilot with 16,000hrs, including 9.000 on Boeing 747s, and that’s what I thought at the time.

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