Grumpy old man: Lessons from the flight deck

It’s not as famous as 2009’s ‘Miracle on the Hudson,’ but what happened in the American skies one summer day in 1989 can be instructive to our leaders.

A flight attendant gives safety instructions to passengers onboard a Philippine Airlines passenger jet in 2015 (photo credit: REUTERS)
A flight attendant gives safety instructions to passengers onboard a Philippine Airlines passenger jet in 2015
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Public broadcasting. Offshore gas fields. Hamas tunnels.
These are issues that require clear thinking and solid decision- making – something that is not quite the forte of our waffling, dissembling leadership.
In Hebrew, a country’s leaders are often referred to as kvarnitei hamedina, or the captains of state. As the singular kabarnit can mean “airline captain,” I can think of no better way to approach these shortcomings than by invoking the decision-making processes that sometimes take place on a flight deck.
CHESLEY B. SULLENBERGER was captain of US Airways Flight 1549, an Airbus A320 that had just taken off from New York City’s LaGuardia Airport on January 15, 2009, when a flock of Canada geese took out both engines. He quickly judged that he lacked the altitude to make it back to LaGuardia or to any of the area’s other runways, so he chose the Hudson River.
Ditching is dangerous, not so much because the aircraft can sink, but because if the impact angle is not reasonably precise, the fuselage will break up.
Sullenberger, with help from co-pilot Jeffrey B. Skiles, got it right, and threeand- a-half minutes after the catastrophic bird strike, he and his 154 passengers and crew were safe, if a bit wet, in what has come to be known as the “Miracle on the Hudson.”
Just under 20 years earlier, on July 19, 1989, Alfred E. Haynes was captain of United Airlines Flight 232 when a fan disk disintegrated in the DC-10’s tail engine. This made the engine unusable – no big deal, really, as the aircraft could continue flying safely toward an emergency landing on the two wing-mounted engines. But shrapnel from the spinning disk rendered all three of the plane’s hydraulic systems useless because their bundled piping passed directly through the damaged area.
Hydraulic fluid, just as much as fuel, is the lifeblood of a large airliner. Without it, a pilot cannot move the heavy control surfaces. Once it’s gone, the plane can do pretty much what it wants until it hits the ground.
In the case of Flight 232, there was also shrapnel damage to some of the aft control surfaces, and this immediately made the DC-10 want to descend and keep rolling to the right, hastening the end. What Haynes did was cut the left throttle and rev the right, knowing that the faster a wing moves through the air, the more lift it generates. He swiveled the plane, in this way raising the right wing and ending what surely would have become a fatal, spiraling dive.
Soon, Dennis E. Fitch, a United DC- 10 flight instructor who happened to be aboard as a passenger, came forward to help Haynes, co-pilot William R.
Records and flight engineer Dudley J.
Dvorak. He was put to work using the two remaining throttles differentially at Haynes’s commands to maneuver the stricken airliner toward the nearest suitable airport, in Sioux City, Iowa.
Using just the engines, of course, does not offer the precision needed for a good landing, but it was sufficient to keep United 232 swiveling long enough to reach topographically flat Sioux City.
When the tower there told Haynes he was “cleared to land on any runway,” the captain laughed: “You want to be particular and make it a runway, huh?" The clearheadedness, creative thinking and calm of Haynes and the others on the flight deck during 44 minutes of terrifying uncertainty – there’s extraordinary audio material from the cockpit voice recorder to bear this out – brought the aircraft to a semi-controlled landing on an actual runway. It was only the right wing, which dropped at the last moment as Fitch frantically worked the throttles to both descend and steer, that sent the DC-10 skidding and disintegrating.
Although over a hundred of those aboard died, 185 others, including all on the flight deck, lived. It was an incident that no one at all should have survived – when investigators loaded United 232’s critical flight data into a simulator, not a single test crew of experienced pilots was able to do any more than punch a huge hole in the virtual ground.
LIFE IS like flying an airplane: You need to keep your speed up and not be too wild at the controls. And when things go wrong, you have to aim for a safe haven, keep your wits about you and be ready to think outside the box.
Sullenberger’s 200-second-long crisis was a matter of life and death, yet he was able to call upon his years as a hobbyist glider pilot to bring to earth a powerless but otherwise fully functioning aircraft. Haynes, on the other hand, was in uncharted territory, jousting with an angry dragon for three-quarters of an hour – and it was a dragon no one had prepared him for.
In its report, the National Transportation Safety Board addressed many aspects of the fan disk failure and ways to prevent it. The sole recommendation on flight crew performance was to “reiterate the importance of time management in the preparation of the cabin for an impending emergency landing.”
Our captains of state should take these stories to heart – especially that of United 232. This is because what they face can be unprecedented in scope and complexity, with not a single history book or how-to manual available.
If you ask me, I say Haynes for prime minister. And Sullenberger should be his deputy – with special responsibility for powerless landings, because even in this part of the world, with all its strange goings-on, you should expect to run across a wayward flock of Canada geese or two.
Knowing the captain now in charge, he’d just avert his gaze from the crisis at hand and then blame the media, the Left or a political rival for what goes wrong. That’s what happens when you get used to flying on autopilot.