Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Every Pilot is a Hero

I've been meaning to post this thought for some time now. Ever since I returned from my vacation in Florida.

Do you remember hearing about the plane that hit birds thus shutting down all engines very shortly after takeoff, so all it could do was glide; and the pilot landed safely in the Hudson River without any loss of life? It really raised all our spirits to read something in the news that had a happy ending, didn't it?

Well, when I fly in an airplane I'm always very aware that flight does not always have a happy ending. I mean, I know it is safer than driving, mile per mile. But I gave a speech in High School speech class about how more people die in automobile accidents every year than US soldiers were killed in the entire Viet Nam conflict. So, that's not saying much about the safety of automobile locomotion.

And, of course, being interested in birds I'm interested in flight in general. I've used those computer flight simulators and have an idea of the complexity of controlling an aircraft. Some of my close friends are hang glider pilots, and they taught me a lot about the atmosphere and air currents.

So, flying out of Miami to Cincinnati on a sporty little plane that cruised at something like 420 mph I was glad that I was not going home through Atlanta that day as there were thunderstorms and tornadoes in the weather prediction for that city.

Landing and taking off are the most critical times in a flight ... that moment that the plane is very close to the ground is unforgiving. As we were approaching the Cincinnati airport I noticed that the pilot was certainly earning his pay that day. Sometimes the plane just glides in, but not today, as he applied more power, then eased off, then accelerated, the plane gently tilting first right then left. One of the goals is to keep the wings level, meaning that neither wing should touch the ground. That's the job for the wheels.

The painted numbers on the runway went past, and the wind sock was standing straight and perpendicular to the runway. A wind sock is elementary, but informative. Hanging down, no wind. Half inflated, some wind. Straight out, windy.

The plane gently tilted first right then left as the runway went past. Runway is a finite resource. If too much of it goes by the pilot applies full thrust and attempts to get airborne and stable for a second attempt. Get antsy at this stage and the other option is to thump down onto the runway, perhaps blowing a tire or breaking landing gear. That's poor form, and I suspect that many have experienced that thud back to earth with a mixture of relief and irritation.

As I contemplated the odds that we would be going around again, the wheels touched, gentle as I've ever experienced.

I was in the back of the plane, and was the last one off. It seems usual that the flight crew says goodbye and thank you to the passengers. I imagine they'd like to be done with the job, but it is part of the customer service tradition. So, I said something like, "Nice landing, there's a bit of weather out of there." The pilot broke into a grin, "It's blowing 40 knots, sideways."

Sideways is a bad way for the wind to blow. Directly toward the plane's nose is best, because then the plane can land even slower, using the air flow to help hold the plane aloft rather than having to use the engines to go faster to stay in the air. How does one compensate for wind pushing the aircraft sideways off the runway? I'm sure it is more difficult than just gliding in, and it is probably something they cover in flight school.

I don't know the pilot's name. We can all remember and honor Sullenberger, the man who calmly piloted his disabled craft into the Hudson River. I believe every pilot is a hero. Like mine who brought everyone down safely under challenging conditions. Even those who get hit by a microburst and crash in a field with great loss of life. They risked or even gave their lives to do their best to safeguard travellers.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

That's a great tribute to not only the pilot of your flight but all pilots as well.