FLY BY WIRE by William Langewiesche

Book Quote:

“In retrospect, what mattered most to [Sullenberger’s] ultimate success was not what he did, but what he chose not to do, his shedding of distractions, the concentration that he brought to the crisis.”

Book Review:

Review by Mary Whipple (NOV 10, 2009)

William Langewiesche’s analysis of all the factors which contributed to the “Miracle on the Hudson” is a story that matches the events themselves in terms of excitement. Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger, pilot of the Airbus A320 which hit a flock of geese, lost both engines, and landed in the Hudson River with no loss of life on January 15, 2009, has rightly been lauded for his performance and has become a popular hero. But he was not alone in the making of this miracle. The plane itself contributed mightily to the successful outcome and the saving of the lives of all one hundred fifty passengers and European-made Airbus is controlled by computerized systems which can not be over-ridden by pilots as they make split second moves during emergencies. And when two or more emergency moves have to be made simultaneously by a pilot who has only two hands and one head, the plane’s computer makes those moves for him. “This marriage between electrical control circuits and digital computer [has become known] as fly-by-wire.”

Langewiesche, an award-winning journalist and pilot who has written for both Vanity Fair and The Atlantic (which published his three-part series on the bombing of the World Trade Center, which was later released in book form as American Ground), is at home with his subject, and he has interviewed virtually everyone who could give input into this story, creating a vibrant, lively, and thoughtful analysis of all the individual elements–including luck–which contributed to this happy ending. At the same time, he also analyzes some of the elements which may have led to the accident, including the issue of bird strikes throughout aviation history and why they happen. The section on the bioengineering mistake in which Giant Canada geese (significantly larger than common Canada geese, weighing twelve pounds, instead of eight pounds) were deliberately introduced into the marshlands along the East Coast as a boon for hunting, is a shocking account. The Canada goose population of 200,000 in 1970 has now reached over four million in 2009, and they are protected by the Migratory Bird Protection Act.

In his attempt to give the complete picture, he also considers the financial problems of the airlines, especially US Airways, the power of the pilots’ unions (which resent having their power to make decisions in the cockpit curtailed in favor of the computers on this superplane), the comfortable relationship between the NTSB , the airlines, and the unions, and the competition between Airbus and Boeing. Airbus now has taken about half the global commercial airplane market away from US companies. As he introduces and develops his subject, he includes a number of case studies of accidents, most of which will be familiar to readers, and one of which is the disappearance into the Atlantic of the Air France flight from Brazil to Paris in June, 2009, about which people are still asking whether this could have been the first example of a crash BECAUSE the pilots could not override the computer. Without the black boxes, this question may never be answered.

As Langewiesche describes the flight from takeoff to landing in the Hudson a mere five minutes later, he really hits his stride, creating a fast-paced narrative, full of tension and human drama. Co-pilot Jeffrey Skiles, who was flying with Sullenberger for the fourth day in a row, receives praise from the author for his performance. A young air traffic controller, Patrick Harten, working fifteen miles from LaGuardia, on Long Island, is also singled out for his complete unflappability and for all the landing options he was able to suggest and discuss with the pilots, at the same time that he was keeping other air traffic from the area and trying not to intrude unnecessarily. The flight attendants, who kept the passengers under control and in position for the water landing are also recognized.

Ultimately, Langewiesche grants enormous credit to Sullenberger for his decisions, including the decision to head for the Hudson when many thought he might have made it to an airport. “Sullenberger made the right decision. No matter what,” Langewiesche says. Sullenberger also made a few moves based on his feel for the plane and his intense concentration during the emergency, despite the fact that these have never been included in any operations manual. One of these decisions helped keep the power going when its loss might have been catastrophic. A serious study which nevertheless has moments of humor, Fly by Wire is a thoroughly absorbing account of a great moment in aviation history and the people and the plane which made this moment a “miracle.”

AMAZON READER RATING: stars-5-0from 1 readers
PUBLISHER: Farrar, Straus and Giroux (November 10, 2009)
REVIEWER: Mary Whipple
AMAZON PAGE: Fly By Wire: The Geese, The Glide, and the Miracle on the Hudson
AUTHOR WEBSITE: Wikipedia page on William Langewiesche
EXTRAS: Vanity Fair interview

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November 10, 2009 · Judi Clark · No Comments
Tags: ,  · Posted in: New York City, Non-fiction

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