No, Sullenberger Did Not Screw Up

“Miracle on the Hudson” pilot Chesley Sullenberger has been so lionized since his remarkable feat of airmanship last year that it was inevitable that some kind of backlash must somehow emerge. Today it seems that that chink in his facade has appeared.

The Wall Street Journal is reporting that the NTSB’s final report on the incident will include the fact that pilots who run through the accident in simulators have been able to return the stricken jet safely to LaGuardia:

…tucked inside thousands of pages of testimony and exhibits are hints that, in hindsight, the celebrated pilot could have made it back to La Guardia Airport. Pilots who used simulators to recreate the accident—including suddenly losing both engines after sucking in birds at 2,500 feet—repeatedly managed to safely land their virtual airliners at La Guardia.

The story immediately goes on to emphasize that officials are not slighting Sullenberger’s feat by suggesting that he should have turned back to the airport:

The results haven’t changed the conclusions of National Transportation Safety Board investigators or outside aviation-safety experts, who unanimously agree that Mr. Sullenberger made the right call to put his crippled jet down in the river. Neither he nor his first officer, Jeffrey Skiles, had any assurance that the Airbus A320—which suddenly turned into a 70-ton glider—would be able to clear Manhattan’s skyline had they tried to return to the Queens airport they left minutes before.

And yet the fact that Sullenberger could have returned the plane to the airport must add a hint of tarnish to his reputation. Had he landed the plane on the runway the aircraft might well have been undamaged (except for the engines, of course) and the media would have had to do without the stark images of passengers streaming from the flooded fuselage out onto the wing. In a sense, it was his very decision to ditch in the Hudson rather than turn back that transformed the incident into such a powerful life-or-death drama. The heroism of what he did is now overshadowed by what he might have done. As a Gawker headline put it this morning, “Sully Could Have Made it Back to the Airport.”

But as any pilot can tell you, returning to the airport would have been a massive error. Even if he theoretically could have turned back to the airport, attempting to do so would have violated a basic precept of pilot training: when you lose engine power on takeoff, do not attempt to return to the airfield.

Why? Take-off is a particularly vulnerable time for aircaft. If a plane loses an engine very early in its takeoff roll, a pilot can apply the brakes before running out of runway. If a plane loses an engine after climbing to a significant altitude, it may be possible to safely return to the airport from which it departed. In between, however, there is a huge danger zone in which there is little time to act and enormous pressure to decide correctly. In this context, it can be all too tempting for a pilot to try a maneuver that he lacks the airspeed or the altitude. As the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association explains on its website,

The return-to-airport maneuver has been labeled the “impossible turn” with good reason: It requires substantial altitude and involves aggressive maneuvering. Taken by surprise, pilots often fail to maintain airspeed and end up having stall/spin accidents. For a gliding aircraft attempting to maintain airspeed, any banking of the wing will increase the sink rate. And the banking doesn’t end after the 180-degree turn. More maneuvering is necessary to overcome the lateral offset from the runway and point the nose down the centerline. Meanwhile, stall speed is increasing with angle of bank. For a crippled airplane already flying low and slow, this combination of lost altitude and rising stall speed can quickly turn a bad situation into a tragic one.

In the heat of the crisis, then, it would have been impossible for Sullenberger to judge accurately whether he would be able  to return to LaGuardia. Based on the transcripts, it’s clear that he quickly discarded the idea. The pilots described in the NTSB report had a year to mull over the options and to try them out on a flight simulator. Sully didn’t, and he knew better than to tempt fate. Rather than try for the best possible outcome, he settled for a safer, suboptimal one. And avoided a real tragedy.

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UPDATE: A reader reminds me that the AOPA recently posted a video on its website of a pilot successfully completing an “impossible turn” in a Mooney. The accompanying story emphasized that this is something that pilots should not do. Both are unfortunately behind a paywall, but the video has been uploaded to Youtube: