article

02.05.09

Hero Pilot to Tower

The voice recordings of Capt. Chesley Sullenberger, the pilot of US Airways Flight 1549, show a man flying brilliantly by the seat of his pants.

The detached and dispassionate relationship between an air traffic controller and an airline pilot, when heard in voice tapes, always seems to the lay person to be strangely economical. The cryptic exchanges are routine, between two very busy people. They will never know each other.

It was far from routine for the LaGuardia controller and Capt. Chesley B Sullenberger, who was at the controls of US Airways Flight 1549 and had just lost the power in both of his engines. But as we listen to the tapes now released by the FAA, the sobering thing is that we hear no panic during the span of three minutes and nine seconds in which “Sully” Sullenberger saved his plane.

Listening to the tape, it seems that the controller takes a few seconds to absorb the scale of the calamity after the bird strike. “Both engines?” he queries. The options for Flight 1549 are already running out.

The controller asks if Sullenberger wants to divert to Teterboro in New Jersey, a few miles west of the Hudson.

“Yes,” says Sullenberger.

But in the time it takes the controller to contact Teterboro and find an available runway for an emergency landing, Capt. Sullenberger knows he can’t make it, and is already running out of sky and turning left over the George Washington Bridge, losing height fast and heading down for the Hudson.

“Unable” he tells the controller. “We can’t do it.”

Then, in a few more beats of the heart, he says “We’re gonna be in the Hudson.”

What’s actually happened is that a man has supplanted all the sophisticated technology that modern aviation can muster. He’s flying by the seat of his pants. His reflexes and instincts have become an extension of the crippled airplane.

What you need to imagine (maybe nobody can) as you listen to these tapes is how exquisitely fused the man and his machine have become.

He knows nobody has ever successfully ditched an airplane, heavy with fuel and passengers, like this.

The controller, meantime, knows that he won’t hear from Sullenberger again. He can see the dot merging with the river. And now we ponder, with fresh astonishment, how many pilots could have done this?

Clive Irving is senior consulting editor at Condé Nast Traveler, specializing in aviation. He has flown the A320 in a simulator and earned an “Honorary Captain” certificate for making a perfect approach and landing at JFK—thankfully, he says, not for real.