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I first began to write about airline crashes in the early seventies. Ever since then, I've tried to learn about and write about both the joys of aviation and the business of avoiding airplane crashes–or else surviving them when they happen.
As I write this, the crash of U.S. Airways Flight 1549 into New York City’s Hudson River happened just about three hours ago, and this is my first response to it. As a pilot and a journalist who writes about aviation, I know from long experience that it's much too early to be weaving detailed explanations of what happened. No one knows yet. It takes time to gather the facts, interview those involved, and examine the wreckage.
The system of airlines works so well that it sometimes seems miraculous to me that we can move so many people around the world, day and night, and have so few accidents. It's an extremely complex system, designed for safety as well as making money. And as a result, something as complex as the crash of an airliner takes a long time to unravel. Be patient. Don’t jump to conclusions.
But we think we know a couple of things at this early point in the investigation. It seems that a big airliner, an Airbus A-320, with 155 people on board, made a water landing in the Hudson River and everyone made it out alive. That is an astounding event. If you had asked me what probability I would assign to such an event (i.e., everybody lives), I might have said 50 percent if I had been feeling good. Landing any airplane in the water, other than a seaplane, is a very bad idea. There are 100 ways to screw up, and if you can think of 50 of them, you're a genius–and most of us pilots aren't geniuses.
For example, with a fragile structure like an airliner, the wings could have come off, and the plane could have burst into flames. You have to keep the nose very high while landing on water so that the tail and underbelly will slow the rest of the plane down, and then the body and nose come to rest gently (you hope) into the water. Water is not compressible, and hitting it at a high speed (the plane was probably going 150 miles an hour) is like hitting concrete. The pilots kept the plane intact. So we have to congratulate them on knocking that one out of the park. An oil and diesel fuel fire on the water during that evacuation would have given the news tonight a very different tone. Mayor Blumberg would not have been calling it "Miracle on The Hudson."
On January 13, 1982, Air Florida Flight 90, a Boeing 737, took off from Washington National (now Reagan) Airport, skipped off the 14th Street Bridge, and crashed into the Potomac River less than a mile from the airport. The plane broke up and sank quickly. There were 79 people on board and only five of them survived. When the plane hit the bridge, it also killed four people in their cars. So we have to be thankful that the pilots from US Airways knew what they were doing.
We also have to acknowledge at this point that the passengers, presumably led by the flight crew, appear to have kept their heads. I have heard that there was at least one baby on board. That makes this achievement that much more remarkable. In crash landings, babies are easy to lose. I'm relieved to hear that this one made it out safely.
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One passenger, named Jeff Kolodjay, told a BBC reporter, "I just kept saying relax relax, women and children first. And then it just started filling with water, quick." This suggests the kind of thinking–and emotion–that I talk about in my books and in my column: Perceive and believe. Don't engage in denial. And stay calm. Don't panic. If you're going to die, you're going to die. Suck it up. In a truly dire situation like this, you have to let go of thoughts of your own death and simply do what needs to be done: Act deliberately and in the right direction.
I reviewed the early photos and video that were coming in just after the crash. I always wondered about those yellow life vests. Luckily, they were actually under the seats on that plane. (They're not on every flight. I always feel under my seat before takeoff so that I know if I'm going to have to swim or not.) But most passengers appeared to be wearing them, which suggests a very good general level of calm and functionality among that group of survivors. Bravo to them.
As information becomes available, I'll be discussing this accident more in the coming days and weeks. It's one of the more remarkable accidents in aviation history, not because the plane crashed, but because no one died.