Monday, March 2, 2009

About Sully

So, what do I think about Sully?

That question has been fired at me from all quarters lately. (Sully is US Airways Captain Chesley Sullenberger, the “Hudson Hero.”) Here's what I think.

Sully isn't a hero. He’s a highly trained, experienced professional who sits up in the executive office of his jetliner and does his job. His paramount goal is not to crash because he knows he will be the first to the crash scene. He knows the first and last things that will go through his mind at the point of impact will be his instrument panel. He has a keen awareness that there are two kinds of pilots: those who know they are going up for their last flight and those who don't. The trusting souls sitting behind him are not his main safety concern; he knows if he takes care of himself his passengers will be the happy beneficiaries of his prioritization efforts.

What do I like about what he did? Two things. First, he quickly assessed his options and methodically sorted them. 

When one option fell through he had another one waiting. The river was the last resort. This is the result of decades of thinking miles ahead of fast moving jets; of double and triple checking every switch position, every setting, every plan and bit of information; of recognizing when something isn't right by the way that little bristle of hair on the back of his neck feels.

None of this is taught in classrooms or textbooks and not all of it is intuitive. It's picked up in the cockpits of Phantoms, Hornets, C-130s, B-52s and the like. It's also painfully earned in the lonely cockpits of small single-pilot cargo planes carrying packages at night in storms and icing with absolutely no one but yourself to rely on. Most of us earn our tickets to this profession. That day on the Hudson all those years paid off. He knew what to do.

The other thing I like about him is his demeanor. He shrugs off the hero hype—my kind of guy. In age, background and experience we're practically equals. We both have pretty wives so used to living alone they can't understand what the big deal is when their friends ask them how they cope. And we're both old ugly geysers. The younger pilots wish we would step aside and let their seniority improve. Despite our likenesses I don’t pretend that I could have done as good a job as he did.

In the wake of Sully's experience I'm getting more attention from people. As I strolled through the plane, as I often do before push-back, one of my passengers recently said, “You look like Sully!” He was smiling approvingly. I think that perception gave him confidence.

A couple of days later another one teasingly asked me if Sully trained me. My immediate teasing answer was, “No. I trained Sully.” That brought on a round of laughs from several rows away. Everybody knew who Sully was.

Still another man politely beckoned me to his first class seat and said, “People are looking at you captains in a whole new way now.” His smile indicated the “new way” was something positive. I wondered why anyone would think of us in any other way. But then there was the “Summer of 2000.” Oh. 

Forgot about that. That's another story.

I hope you've got a Sully type up front next time you fly. The statistics say your chances of having one improves with the size of the plane you're on. That's just a fact of life we have to live with. Smaller planes pay less (way less) and draw entry-level job seekers.

I do one thing now, as a result of Sully's unscheduled swim, although it may at first seem minor. We get a final weight and balance report that comes out of our printer just before take off. We enter any last minute changes in that information into the performance pages of our computer. This tweaks our expectations of what the plane can and can't do when we put the spurs to her. A little note on the bottom of that page tells us the exact number of people on board including crew. It's called the SOB count. It means Souls on Board (I'm certain some of those souls are a subset of SOBs). That's information I might need if I find myself standing or laying beside a bent bird talking to rescuers, so I put the little sheet in my shirt pocket.

I remember once explaining to my mother what SOB meant in the people count. She looked astonished and said, 

“Souls!?” Then she uttered a painful grunt.

So, I lift my glass to Sully. He's an SOB but not an SOB. He's one of the good guys. So is his first officer, his flight attendants and every other airline professional out there plying the skies. They're not lucky, they're good.

Here are a few cool (no pun) pics from the last few trips.

The Hush House at O'Hare. They test engines here.

Gate C9 in Denver with reflection in the window. The de-icing
boom is on the right. The colored lights are the auto park system.
Under the lights you can see a poster in the terminal of
Katie Couric framing me.

Descending into Denver, you can see where the plane
ahead cut a hot slice into the cloud deck as he went down
through it.

Heading east across eastern Montana you can see
a contrail on the right side of a flight ahead and
below us. On the left is the shadow of his contrail
on the snowy ground.

Again in eastern Montana, the shadows of contrails.
The vertical one is crossing traffic. The horizontal one
is ours.

One of this blog's followers asked for a shot of the
terminator (read the MAR 11 2008 post for more
info on the terminator).

Are we there yet?

One recent day in Denver the airport was assaulted
by zillions of tumbleweeds. It was bizarre. Watch this video
taken at the gate after we blocked-in.