Fly by Wire

Fly by Wire: The Geese, the Glide, the Miracle on the Hudson
By William Langewiesche
Penguin £8.99, 208 pages
FT Bookshop price: £7.19

The world has already heard much of Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger, the pilot who landed his jet safely on New York’s Hudson River last year when a flock of Canadian geese flew into its engines shortly after take-off. What became known as the “miracle on the Hudson” has spawned two books of survivor stories, a documentary and a memoir from Sullenberger, who proved it was still possible to become a national hero overnight.

William Langewiesche, international correspondent for Vanity Fair magazine, was at first reluctant to add his voice to the fray. He tends to cover wars and the decline of the nation state. But he is also a pilot, and a pilot’s son, who has written on aviation disasters before, and he changed his mind because the plane was an Airbus A320, one of the most controversial and revolutionary aircraft ever built.

The result is this slender book in which the human drama of the Hudson incident is the backdrop to a broader meditation on the modern aviation industry. Langewiesche writes sympathetically of the pilots’ lot: the rotten pay, the second jobs, the endless downsizing. But his real passion is for detail. In few aviation books will you learn that birds ingested by aircraft engines are liquefied, leaving a tell-tale smell “enhanced with fishiness”.

Or that a British woman on a 1982 British Airways flight that lost power in all four engines kept reading her Jane Austen novel after the captain announced he and his crew were “doing our damnedest to get them going again”. (And did.) Or that some passengers rescued from the Hudson went back to La Guardia to catch a later flight.

Langewiesche is at his best, however, deconstructing the modern media hero. He did it in the acclaimed 9/11 book American Ground by suggesting some of the lauded firefighters might have behaved badly. Here, he argues the Airbus A320 aircraft deserves more credit than it received for the fact no one died in the Hudson.

Sullenberger, he says, was a “brilliant” pilot. But he was also flying the latest version of the first passenger airliner equipped with digital fly-by-wire flight control systems, which controversially allow computers to override the pilot as the aircraft nears its design limits in an emergency. Proponents say this leaves the pilot free to concentrate on critical priorities. Critics say pilots should have the final say, as they do on the fly-by-wire aircraft later made by Airbus’s US rival, Boeing.

Langewiesche is not foolish enough to suggest that Sullenberger’s passengers would have died were they on a Boeing. Both manufacturers have strong safety records. What he does show is the deeper significance of the Hudson crash: it involved an aircraft whose creative father, Bernard Ziegler, a French test and fighter pilot, had identified pilots as “the weak link in flight”. Or, as Langewiesche writes, as Sullenberger struggled to land safely, “Ziegler reached out across the years and cradled them all the way to the water”.

Pilita Clark is the FT’s aerospace correspondent

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