Friday, March 5, 2010

Bully for You, Sully!

Day 17 of 46 c Lenten Season 2010

Show and Tell

Clear and sunny skies greeted us as our airplane roared off the runway from LaGuardia. From my window seat, I traced the increasingly diminutive landmarks as we soared above them, the vast expanse of Long Island Sound far off to the right, the teeming brown cityscape of the Bronx, with it’s tangle of freeways slithering below. I don’t recall seeing the majestic George Washington Bridge, but we were about to pass over the Hudson River...

Suddenly, a muffled bang shook the airliner’s cabin, and it seemed as if the plane sank back from its ascent for a brief moment before surging ahead. We passengers glanced about at each other apprehensively, while others wondered aloud what had happened. Did you feel that?

I glanced out of the window, and yes, we still had an engine attached to the wing. That’s how suspicious the noise and vibration felt. But in the immediate moments after the incident, no acknowledgement of it was made from the cockpit or flight crew, so maybe it was nothing.

Well, it wasn’t.

“Good morning, ladies and gentlemen, this is your captain speaking,” intoned a measured voice over the speakers. “We appear to have lost the use of one of our engines, and have decided to return to LaGuardia to have everything checked out."

And then, our plane began a decidedly right-hand turn, banking and heading back over the Hudson. On the whole, we passengers remained relatively calm and quiet. We knew there was a problem, we knew what it was, the pilots are taking us back to the airport, and everything will be OK. Horribly inconvenient, but that’s the way it goes sometimes.

“Good morning again, ladies and gentlemen… ahhh… LaGuardia can’t accommodate our plane at this time… but Kennedy can, so we’re heading there instead.”

OK, what had been only horribly inconvenient was now sounding much more disconcerting.

“Uh... yeah, ladies and gentlemen… ahhh… just wanted to let you know that we will be met at Kennedy by a full compliment of emergency equipment along the runway… ahhh… just in case…”

You would have thought the pilot said we were going to crash right there. Questions started flying around the cabin, muffled whimpers could be heard, and lots of people started calling for flight attendants. For their part, the flight attendants had been cool as cucumbers so far, and still weren’t betraying any alarm.

“Flight attendants, please prepare for… landing..." I can’t remember if the pilot said it would be a crash landing, but by this time, we all knew what he meant. The whimpers from passengers weren’t muffled anymore. I could hear some people begin to cry. Others started praying out loud. The well-dressed executive from Anne Klein II sitting in the seat next to me turned around to her business associates behind us and cursed.

How did I know she was from Anne Klein II? She told me. They told everybody. She and a handful of others just like her boarded the plane with bags emblazoned “Anne Klein II.” They had been laughing and talking loudly to each other, despite sitting in various parts of the cabin. Now, though, there wasn’t the condescending punch to their voices.

Quietly and methodically, the flight attendants cleared out their entire stash of blankets and pillows, distributing them across the cabin. They repeated the same safety demonstration they had completed just minutes earlier, when nobody was watching them. This time, though, they had everybody’s full attention!

“Prepare for landing."

Out the window, I could see a phalanx of emergency trucks, police cars, and fire engines already lined up alongside the runway we were approaching. As we sailed overhead, preparing to touch concrete, I saw more trucks and flashing lights racing towards us from across another runway. Pushed up next to me, looking out of the same window over my shoulder, the Anne Klein II woman cursed again.

I had to admit – seeing all of those emergency vehicles racing to meet us didn’t exactly inspire a lot of confidence! But I prayed silently to myself, just in case this really was it. The flight attendants remained calm as they went to their jump seats to ride out whatever would happen next.

Parallels in Flight

It was one of the smoothest landings I’ve ever had in a plane. No rolling, no bouncing... no explosions! Cheers erupted throughout the cabin. More people cried – but this time, from sheer relief. The Anne Klein II woman cursed again, but this time with a lot more gusto.

Obviously, this harrowing ordeal wasn’t the “Miracle on the Hudson” that took place over one year ago. My experience happened back in the 1980’s, when I was a college student returning to Texas from visiting my aunt in Brooklyn. But I was reminded of it again when US Airways Captain Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger announced his retirement this past Wednesday.

The pilot who made landing a passenger airplane on top of the Hudson River look like another day at the office says he’ll be leaving the commercial cockpit to advocate for better training and pay for airline pilots. Some people scoff at his being labeled a hero, but hey – what else do you call somebody who puts a plane down in the middle of an urban waterway without any loss of life? There was more damage done to the aircraft when they fished it out of the Hudson than from the crash itself. And with the exception of two hysterical women who hurt themselves trying to open the emergency doors the wrong way, everybody walked away.

I’ve blogged before about airline pilots and the pay they receive for carting all of us around our congested skyways. Every day, pilots take off and land with hundreds of people, one slip-up away from death, and nobody really notices. Sullenberger isn’t the first pilot who’s had to make some cool, calm decisions with split-second timing, and he won’t be the last. My opinion on what they’re paid for such an incredible responsibility is pretty simple: I want my pilots happy!

Did Sullenberger receive a big, fat bonus for his feat on the Hudson? I don’t know, but who would complain if he did? Certainly not his passengers that day or since. Probably not even some executives with US Airways, who reveled in the newfound public relations boost he gave them.

Grousing all the way to their brokers, however, would probably have been the shareholders if Sullenberger had been given even a fraction of the millions he saved his company that day. Rewarding a job well done doesn’t necessarily jive with rewarding the wealth invested into something. Not that buying stocks in a company and hoping that company does well isn’t a bad thing. But it’s not the only thing, is it?

I wonder what a US Airways shareholder on Flight # 1549 that day would have said moments before Sullenberger landed on a sliver of water between Manhattan's skyscrapers and New Jersey's palisades. Hurtling downwards over the George Washington Bridge, with the Hudson’s choppy waters coming fast into view, the shareholder probably would have screamed, “Give him anything he wants!”

1 comment:

  1. Enjoyed the post. I'd like to recommend you read "Airframe" by Michael Crichton. It's based (loosely) on a true life story about the investigation of an in-flight accident, and it's chock-full of interesting details about the commercial aerospace industry.

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