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Editor’s letter: Fear of flying

Suddenly, around 90 seconds into the flight and at some 3,000 feet above the
Bronx, the first officer spots a flock of large brown birds. He thinks they’re
going to miss them, but it’s too late to do anything about it anyway. Captain
Chesley Sullenberger’s initial reaction is to duck – not as silly as it sounds,
since a goose can cause a lot of damage when it’s hit by an aircraft windscreen
at a couple of hundred miles per hour. A number of geese fall victim to the
engines on the Airbus A320. Both engines immediately fall victim to the geese.

While the pilots assess whether there is any power left, option A, an
immediate return to New York’s La Guardia, is instantly ruled out. Teterboro
airport in New Jersey looks like a good plan B, but only for a few seconds. “Too
low and too slow,” Captain Sullenberger believes it’s out of reach. “We’re going
into the Hudson,” the captain tells air traffic control.

You train for this day. You train and you train and you train – but not only
do you never really believe you will have to put this training into practice,
you probably never will. But if you have to, you can.

Pilots learn how to deal with a huge range of potential disasters and
practise the correct response procedures over and over in incredibly realistic
simulators. When it comes to risk, they are the ones with the front row seat.
Moreover, the most experienced pilots, I’m told, almost always have an
alternative plan in mind: if we lost all engines now, where would we put down?

When the crisis arises, the captain doesn’t get paid to be the best pilot on
the plane. That honour could just as easily belong to the first officer (who is
invariably lost in the media shadow of the captain when it’s all over, but many
of our readers will know that feeling). The captain is paid to make decisions.
La Guardia: not possible. Teterboro: too risky. The Hudson: flying south, with a
tail wind (not good) but nearer to the commuter ferries than landing north
bound.

Nor is the captain necessarily paid to make the absolutely best decision.
Several days after the accident, some pilots on an aviation industry website
calculated that the flight could have made it to Teterboro. But Sullenberger
didn’t have the luxury of time that those on the ground had to perform the
mathematical calculations. In any event, he almost certainly realised that too
much could have gone wrong while flying a damaged Airbus over heavily-populated
terrain.

He’s paid to know what decisions have to be made, to make them and to execute
them superbly. And he needs a well-trained team – in the cockpit and the cabin –
to make it happen.

Something in all of this made me think of the banking crisis. If you needed a
pilot’s licence to lend money, most bankers wouldn’t make it to ‘Plane Spotter,
first class’. If bankers had a pilot’s training in risk and what to do when it
makes all your dials go red, then the heat would have been taken out of the
financial system long before banks started falling out of the sky. Bankers fly
into thunderstorms because that’s where the fun and excitement is, and it just
adds to delay and cost to fly around them; besides, it’s not their plane, and
they have a parachute. A golden one. Pilots avoid thunderstorms like cats avoid
water.

It’s also striking how ill-suited our elected representatives are at times
like this. It’s as if a Boeing declared an emergency and called upon the
transport minister to deal with it. Now our bankers have crashed, the minister
couldn’t help them, they’ve left the wreckage and the casualties all over the
entire economy and they’ve given themselves such a dreadful fright they don’t
want to fly any more. They don’t want to pilot the plane and they certainly
don’t want to fly as a passenger in anyone else’s plane. They know how
ill-equipped all the other bank-pilots are.

Some day the planes will be flying again. When they do, there’s an old saying
in the aviation industry that’s worth bearing in mind: “There are old pilots and
there are bold pilots, but there are no old, bold pilots.” When we can start
saying the same thing about bankers, we’ll be getting somewhere.

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