We’ve just finished reading “Fly By Wire: The Geese, the Glide, the Miracle on the Hudson,” by William Langewiesche.
It’s about US Airways 1549, the Airbus A320 pilot by Chelsey Sullenberger and Jeffrey Skiles, forced to make an emergency landing in New York City’s Hudson River last January 15.
We’ve also been reading the reviews and reaction to the book, including Sullenberger’s reaction. We wonder if we’ve been reading the same book as the critics, who dispute the contribution the A320’s fly-by-wire system made to the safe landing.
To read the critics’ response, including Sullenberger, one would think Langwieche gave all the credit to the A320 for the safe landing and none to the flight crew. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Langewiesche gives full credit to the skills of Sulley and Skiles for their actions in the short, 3 1/2 minutes from impact with the geese to landing in the water. He is generous with his superlatives in describing Sullenberger’s skill, calm and split-second decision-making.
The point of his book is to examine the fly-by-wire design of the A320 (and subsequent Airbus airplanes) and discuss how, in this case, the system contributed to the safe landing. His is not an either-or proposition; it’s an “and.”
Sullenberger rather grumpily responds that he would have made a safe landing in a conventional Boeing 737 that doesn’t have fly-by-wire. Whether he would have or not will always be a matter of conjecture. One can only wonder what might have happened to United Airlines Flight 232, the DC-10 that crash-landed at Sioux City, Iowa, despite the superb skill of the cockpit crew had the DC-10 had fly-by-wire to help stabilize the airplane.
Langewiesche details Sullenberger’s quick decisions made under high stress. While Skiles was occupied trying to restart the two engines, Sullenberger had to evaluate glide ratios, heights, distances and immediately conclude he didn’t have enough altitude to get back to LaGuardia Airport. Sullenberger immediately decided to turn on the APU, even though this is not part of the engine-out procedures. The APU permitted generators to work after No. 2 engine completely failed on its own and after Skiles shut down No. 1 (part of the procedure) in a last-ditch effort to restart the engine, less than a minute before impact.
In effect, the fly-by-wire acted as the third pilot, enabling Sullenberger to fly to a successful landing. The plane couldn’t have landed safely without Sullenberger and Skiles at the controls. Whether Sullenberger could have safely landed the airplane without the fly-by-wire may be answered when the NTSB issues its report. But it seems clear he was helped.
The book is not without its flaws. It becomes tedious in spots as Landewiesche seems to be including stuff more to fill space than add to the story–a routine set of exchanges between a controller and a series of flights takes up the better part of two pages. And, like Langewiesche’s excerpt earlier this year in Vanity Fair, he takes forever to get to the point. We skipped over many, many pages because we were bored (exacerbated by the fact we had read the Vanity Fair piece when it came out and were equally bored then). But once he got to the point of 1549 itself, we found the interaction between Sullenberger, Skiles and the fly-by-wire quite interesting.
Why people are reacting as they are is a mystery. Langewieche takes nothing away from the pilots in writing his book.