Learning From a Role Model

Just as gourmands judge a meal by the quality of the dessert, nonpilot passengers rate a pilot's skills by the landing at the end of the flight.

No question, based on their recent "landing" Captain Chesley B. "Sully" Sullenberger and First Officer Jeff Skiles, of US Airways Flight 1549, have gotten top marks for their piloting ability.

By now everyone knows that the pilots of the January 15, 2009, Airbus A320 flight, scheduled from La Guardia (LGA) to Charlotte (CLT), were forced to make a dead stick landing in New York's Hudson River after losing both engines to bird strikes.

People unfamiliar with the Hudson River are impressed that Sully (his demeanor encourages the use of his nickname) managed to get the airplane onto the river, but the river is much wider than any runway. No, it was the skill that Sully and his crew had to demonstrate correctly, from the moment of the collision with the formation of geese to the touchdown on the water to the safe evacuation of the 155 people onboard, that was extraordinary. It was a heroic effort by the entire crew and gave aviation a positive boost.

It would be nice to think that all pilots are trained to deal with an emergency the way the crew did. But some of us have probably become a bit rusty on the piloting skills that Sully and Jeff relied on to achieve the miraculous outcome.

The situation that Sully and his crew faced was essentially a combination of three different challenges; handling any one of them improperly would have likely resulted in a starkly different conclusion. In sequence the crew was faced with a bird strike, a dead stick landing and a water ditching. But, in addition to basking in the superb performance by fellow aviators, it's worth taking a moment to consider how we would respond to the circumstances that confronted the crew.

Typical general aviation airplanes have an advantage over jet airplanes when it comes to damage from bird strikes. Our piston-powered airplanes don't go as fast as turbine-powered airplanes so birds can more easily get out of our way. If we do run over a bird, rather than having it get sucked into the engine and tear things up, our propellers work pretty well to mess up a bird's forward progress. For general aviation airplanes the more likely concern is with imploding windscreens and airframe damage from collisions.

The damage can be significant. A friend recently recounted a bird strike in his Cessna 185. He was flying at 8,500 feet on a very dark night under a 10,000-foot overcast with no moon or starlight. With no warning, he said, there was a huge bang and the airplane rapidly rolled right. He was able to regain control with full left aileron and about half left rudder. Since his flashlight revealed no obvious damage to either wing he assumed a bird hit the vertical stabilizer. He managed to make a wheel landing at his destination, keeping his speed up to 105 knots with no flaps and fire trucks standing by. His airplane had struck three geese, apparently in formation. One made a 38-inch "bathtub" dent in the top leading part of the right wing root; the second split the leading edge in half with a 4-foot-long, 18-inch-wide section of the upper wing peeled up and back like a spoiler just outboard of the top of the strut; and the third bird made an 8-inch wide "V" in the leading edge near the tip.

In the dark, he wasn't able to see the geese, but as a general rule, if you do see birds you're better off climbing to fly above them. Their inclination in a panic situation is to dive toward the ground.

Some other rules regarding avoiding bird strikes include flying high since very few bird strikes occur above 2,500 feet. It's also a good practice to avoid flying over bird and wildlife sanctuaries marked on sectional charts. Areas along shore lines or along rivers are popular with birds as well as with pilots using them for navigation.

The risk of a strike is at its greatest in July and August since many inexperienced young birds are trying their wings, and the flying abilities of adults may be impaired as they molt their flight feathers.

The slower you fly, the more likely birds can avoid your airplane and the less damage from a strike. Using landing lights during takeoff, climb, descent, approach and landing will make your airplane more visible. And there have been some studies that indicate pulsing landing/taxi lights help birds avoid airplanes. Whatever happens, remember fly the airplane!

The decision by Sully and the crew to land on the river couldn't have been easy. The misguided instinctive tendency when an emergency occurs during departure is, unfortunately, for pilots to try to turn back to the airport. Even the Airbus crew considered the option.

After calling departure as the Airbus passed through 700 feet, the crew was cleared to 5,000 feet and then to 15,000 feet and advised to turn to a heading of 270. Within seconds the pilot radioed, "Ah, this is uh Cactus Fifteen Forty Nine hit birds we lost thrust in both engines. We're turning back towards La Guardia."

The Airbus was at an altitude that allowed Captain Sullenberger to momentarily consider turning back to land at La Guardia, but it quickly became obvious to him that wasn't going to work. "I'm not sure if we can make any runway. Oh, what's over to our right anything in New Jersey? Maybe Teterboro?"

The controller gave him a heading to Teterboro, "Cactus Fifteen Twenty Nine [sic] turn right two-eight-zero. Can land Runway One at Teterboro."

But it was obvious that that too wasn't going to work. "We can't do it."

"Which runway would you like at Teterboro?"

"We're gonna be in the Hudson."

From the earliest days of our training, we're admonished not to turn back unless we have sufficient altitude to safely make the nearly 270-degree turn to get back to the runway. Having determined by experiment -- at a safe altitude -- what constitutes sufficient altitude (with a built-in margin for the delay caused by surprise and denial) you'll know whether you should pick a landing site within a narrow area to the front or try to turn back.

Have you given thought to memorizing landing locations off the end of runways at your home airport? If the airport is in an urban area, knowing ahead of time what the best options are could be a life saver in an emergency.

If you do have to make an emergency landing, it should be as normal as possible. Fly the airplane all the way to the ground in a normal landing attitude. Don't try to "save" the airplane. Sacrifice the wings to dissipate the force of the impact, and depending on the terrain, leave the gear stowed.

When was the last time you actually made a power-off accuracy landing? Every time Richard Collins has conducted my flight review he's insisted that at least one of the landings be power off. I'm embarrassed to admit that I haven't often practiced accuracy landings. Now that'll change.

** Landing competition at National Intercollegiate Flying Association.**

One way to practice power-off landings is to follow the basic rules of the National Intercollegiate Flying Association's SAFECON (Safety and Flight Evaluation Conference) power off landing event.

According to the rules, the power is reduced to idle opposite the spot of intended landing at an altitude not less than 800 feet agl. From that point on, a rectangular pattern is flown at normal gliding speed for the airplane in use. The engine may be "cleared" in a normal manner once on base leg. At completion of the final turn, the contestant must be at an altitude of not less than 200 feet agl. Flaps may be used in a normal manner. They may be extended until the aircraft is 100 feet agl on final approach and not retracted until after landing.

You judge how well you do by picking a spot along the runway where you intend to touchdown. In the SAFECON competition, pilots are judged by measuring the distance they land from a target line marked on the runway. Two foul lines, one 100 feet short of the target line and another 200 feet beyond the target line, are marked on the runway. All landings within the white foul lines will be awarded points based on the actual distance in feet from the target line where both main landing gear touch down and remain firmly on the ground. Touching short of the first white foul line or landing beyond the second white foul line results in a penalty of 400 points for that landing. The addition of power after reducing it to idle opposite the landing point results in a penalty of 200 points. Failure to add power when obviously necessary to execute a safe landing will result in disqualification.

Although the SAFECOM rules only allow the use of slips when necessary to correct for crosswinds and prohibit "S-turns" or fishtailing to adjust the approach, when it's the real thing they're good for controlling a power-off approach. Slips are an excellent weapon to carry in your power-off quiver. Go out and practice them.

After the Airbus crew dealt with the bird strike and the power-off approach they were faced with the challenge of safely ditching the airliner.

Captain Sullenberger explained during the round of press conferences and television interviews that it was paramount that he keep the wings level and the airplane in a nose-up attitude when it touched down on the water.

** After a successful ditching a "streamer" can make it easier for rescuers to locate a survivor in the water.**

Ditching an airplane isn't something we practice or even think about. But if you ever find yourself planning a route over open water, you'll want to consider the safest ways to ditch your airplane. I've flown across Lake Michigan more than 50 times and each time I drag the life vest from the back seat, calculate the point of no return, and keep an eye out for ships on the surface. Putting a life vest on in a hurry in the cramped cabin of a typical general aviation airplane is difficult, so a prudent pilot will don the life vest before its use becomes urgent.

The emergency ditching procedures section of the POH for my Cardinal RG calls for transmitting a mayday (with your position), securing or jettisoning heavy objects, keeping the landing gear up, setting the flaps at 30 degrees, using power to establish a 300 fpm descent at 60 knots (if power's not available, 10 degrees of flaps at 65 knots). If the winds are high and the seas heavy, the approach should be made into the wind; if the winds are light with heavy swells, the approach is parallel to the swells. The doors should be unlatched and contact with the surface should be in a level attitude at a 300 fpm descent. The POH advises cushioning your face with a folded coat or seat cushion. After the airplane comes to rest evacuation is made through the cabin doors. If necessary, the vent windows can be opened to flood the cabin to equalize pressure so the doors can be opened more easily. It may be necessary to use your feet to force the doors open.

It's important to continue flying the airplane even after contact is made with the surface since the airplane could skip off the surface, and keeping a wingtip from digging into the water as long as possible is important to keep the airplane from cartwheeling.

If you have a handheld radio and a portable GPS, you might consider carrying them in a waterproof bag when you're flying over water. They come in handy to call for help and announce where you are if you're sitting in a raft or treading water waiting for rescue.

Other options to help rescuers find you include a deployable streamer available from rescuestreamer.com. A 50-foot version is priced at about $50 and really helps highlight someone in the water or on snow or other terrain. Another option is a handheld emergency strobe light. A variety of strobes and beacons are available through sportys.com.

We can all be proud of the airmanship that Captain Sullenberger and his entire crew demonstrated. In an interview he said that he felt his whole life was in preparation for dealing with what happened on January 15. We owe it to ourselves and our passengers to prepare as best we can for possible emergencies. Sully and his crew are role models we can proudly emulate.


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