Friday, February 13, 2009

I was on Flight 3407 too

I have no photo for this post, because no photo would do this justice.

Yesterday, I took my biennial flight review--something required of all pilots in the US. It's less a test, and more a discussion of safety, coupled a demonstration of the pilot's most rudimentary skills. On the ground, you discuss airspace, weather minimums, legally required equipment--that sort of thing. In the air, you demonstrate radio communications, navigation; practice maneuvers, like stalls and steep turns; and go through the motions of an emergency landing.

The emergency landing test happens when the examiner pulls the power on your engine at a time most inconvenient. To ensure you resist the temptation to put it back in, she holds her hand on the throttle. The pilot must establish himself in a configuration that will ensure he remains aloft for as long as possible, while at the same time, he must determine where to land the airplane.

We were over an area just north of the San Pablo Bay (San Francisco), which was pretty sparsely populated. There were wide open fields all around me, so choosing a landing spot was more about choice than it was desperation. But each time I run an emergency procedures scenario, I think about the real thing. I wonder if a suitable landing spot will be so easy to find when the engine really does quit, and I wonder if my training will be enough to get me there.

One time, I did have an engine emergency; but it occurred right smack dab in the center of Oakland International, just after take off. So, again, my decision was an easy one: "Uh, I think I'll land on the big, massive runway still below me." I told the tower my intentions, and the controller asked, "Do you think you'll require services?" which was his G-rated way of asking if I planned on crashing.

"No," I said. If I couldn't make this landing, I didn't deserve emergency services.

All pilots go through this stuff. We train and train and, for the vast majority of us, emergency procedures are never more than exercises.

Soon after I got home from my flight review, I heard about Flight 3407. It stopped me dead in my tracks.

In air crash news reports, you hear about the airplane model's safety record, you hear about weather conditions, you hear about fatalities, and you hear all sorts of speculation about what might have happened. You even hear the life profiles of the deceased passengers for whom the news media can conjure up the most emotional stories--this one was a mother of newborn twins; that one was on his way to feed the hungry somewhere; the other was connected to some celebrity somehow.

But you never hear someone talk about what was going through the minds of the flight crew. What were Captain Marvin Renslow and First Officer Rebecca Shaw thinking moments before their flight and lives ended? Did they hear their CFI's voices in their heads reminding them to keep the wings level, or to watch their airspeed? Did they have flashbacks to their earliest pilot training and remember when emergency procedures were always conducted over big, flat green fields with a flight instructor by your side?

No matter what kind of airplane a pilot flies, the personal experience is largely the same: You feel a sense of responsibility, not only for the airplane and for yourself, but for those flying with you, and those below you on the ground.

When emergencies end in "miracles," as did the now famous Hudson River landing, we get to hear what the pilot was thinking. We get to hear, in his or her own words, what went wrong and what went right. When we contrast that with the outcome of an emergency like that of Flight 3407, it's easy to wonder if those pilots just weren't as good. Perhaps "Sully" could have landed this airplane; perhaps Continental's pilots aren't as good as those of USAir; perhaps Congress needs to look into something--I'm not sure what, but something.

But you know? Each airborne emergency is a battle between the pilot, the circumstances and fate. Sometimes things turn out, and sometimes not.

Yesterday, when my power was pulled, I was confident. I thought fast, and I had my airplane set up for what I'm certain would have been a "Sully" landing in a luscious grass field.

And why don't aviation examiners pull stunts like that over congested areas?

If a simulated emergency turns real, CFIs want to make sure the pilot's fight against circumstances and fate is stacked in his favor; because airplanes don't land well on houses, no matter who is flying.

Every time I hear of an airplane crash, I feel partially to blame, because... I don't know why. But I start wondering what "I" could have done differently. And I think that's what links all pilots--we never stop second guessing how we could have made a bad experience better, or salvaged a disaster--even if it's not our own.

Hats off to Sully. And hats off to Renslow and Shaw--for jobs equally well done.

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