I was just finishing Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger's book, "Highest Duty," about his dramatic landing in the Hudson River, when the news was broadcast two weeks ago of an airliner crash closer to home. An eerie coincidence -- or as my boyhood friend, Ken Harris, and I used to call it, a real cohinkydink. I couldn't help comparing those crashes.
Two airliners, both loaded with passengers, crash-landed four and a half years and a continent apart. The first one, US Airways Flight 1549, had lost power in both engines, but was piloted to a safe (but very wet) landing in New York's Hudson River with every one of its passengers and crew emerging alive. Tragically, three young people died in the recent one, Asiana Airlines Flight 214.
Some of the main points stressed by Sullenberger stuck in my mind: First of all, someone has to fly the plane! And, no matter how advanced automation may become, an experienced pilot must be fully in charge of the controls, especially during an emergency. Seconds after both jet engines were knocked out from a collision with a flock of geese shortly after takeoff from La Guardia Airport, Sullenbeger told his copilot, "My aircraft," and took full control of the plane.
Still over part of New York City, the big decision concerned where he might be able to glide the huge 150,000-pound powerless airliner to a safe landing. He quickly ruled out a return to La Guardia or to Newark in New Jersey as too chancy. A misjudgement at those could lose everybody. Therefore, the Hudson. Thousands of flying hours experience plus knowledge of the terrain and exceptional coolness guiding the plane through the crisis paid off. Everyone lived! That's why Chesley Sullenberger ranks high on my American Heroes list.
The Hudson River controlled crash was in my mind as I read about the recent Asiana disaster.
Several pilots were in the cockpit with the one at the controls making his first approach into the San Francisco airport and with limited experience piloting that particular plane, a Boeing 777. And, Sullenberger's observation about automated controls loomed large when I read that the descending aircraft had been put on "auto-throttle."
Having experienced more than 800 flying hours in the Army Air Corps at the end of World War II (as a radio operator), I can recall our pilots being careful to continually check the airspeed indicator to make sure we stayed above stall-out speed while landing.
Of course, we realize investigators are still checking all factors regarding the tragedy at SFO and there may be mitigating circumstances not shown in the press reports. But this columnist hopes the next flight he takes has a well-experienced, calm-in-a-crisis person in control of the aircraft.
Contact Joe King at alame- danews@bayareanews- group.com.