Hudson Landing An Engineering Miracle, Pilot Says In January, pilot Chelsey "Sully" Sullenberger was hailed as a hero, after he glided his U.S. Airways plane — which had lost both engines — to a safe landing in the Hudson. In Fly by Wire, writer and former pilot William Langewiesche argues that it was the engineering of the plane, and not Sullenberger's skill, that made the "miracle" possible.
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Hudson Landing An Engineering Miracle, Pilot Says

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Hudson Landing An Engineering Miracle, Pilot Says

Hudson Landing An Engineering Miracle, Pilot Says

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This is TALK OF THE NATION. Im Neal Conan in Washington.

At this point everybody knows what happened to U.S. Airways Flight 1549 last January 15th. Shortly after take-off from the LaGuardia Airport in New York, the Airbus A-320 ran into a flock of geese, lost power to both engines, then a cool, collected pilot named Chelsey Sullenberger glided the plane toward the Hudson River and set it down perfectly in those frigid waters, rescue boats raced out and brought all 150 passengers in five crews safely to shore.

In a new book, William Langewiesche argues that along with Sully Sullenberger, we need to thank someone else for the miracle on the Hudson, a French test and fighter pilot named Bernard Ziegler who went on to design an airliner so easy to fly it is almost pilot proof. He writes that Ziegler was so despised within the French pilots union that he received death threats. And 25 years later its possible that Langewiesches argument will not be much more popular among their American brethren. So, pilots if you would like to challenge William Langewiesches account of the miracle on the Hudson, give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us, You can also join the conversation on our Web site, thats at Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Later in the program, 10 controversial moments from 40 years of Sesame Street, only 10. Email us yours. The address again is But first, William Langewiesche, the international editor at Vanity Fair. His new book is titled, Fly by Wire, and he joins us from the studio in the campus of the University of California at Davis. Nice to have you back on the program.

Mr. WILLIAM LANGEWIESCHE (Author, Fly by Wire): Thanks for having me.

CONAN: And I have to point out that first that you credit Sully Sullenberger as an exceptional pilot who performed brilliantly on that day.

Mr. LANGEWIESCHE: Absolutely, he performed brilliantly. I mean, it was a great job of flying, high concentration. What he really did was shed distraction in the most admirable way and he flew the airplane perfectly. You know, to go back to how you introduce this segment, I kind of disagree with you. I dont believe that this book is saying that the A-320 is pilot proof. That was the sort of the bombastic conceit of Bernard Zeigler, the man who designed this revolutionary fly-by-wire airplane - he thought that he could make an airplane that was essentially crash proof. And he was identifying, in a bombastic way, pilots as being the weak link. Now he realizes, after many years, that a lot of hubris was involved in his attitude and certainly his language was inflammatory. This book does not take Bernard Zeiglers side but admires the creation, if not the philosophy behind it, of this airplane.

CONAN: Well, we will get to that in a moment, but you described the airplane as a work of genius.

Mr. LANGEWIESCHE: Absolutely. Its a work of genius. I mean, Ziegler was working on the basis of other research that had been done and airplanes that had been built military airplanes in the United States; the F-16 - fly-by-wire, which is the use of computers to, sort of, permanently-on computers in semi-robotic fashion is actually the creation of experiments done at NASA in the late 50s and early 60s. So, he was not inventing the wheel, but he had the courage intellectual courage - to proceed forward with this design in a civilian airliner and he had very interesting reasons for doing it. The result was, and is, something like a magic carpet. I mean, this is a highly, highly unusual airplane and it is to be admired.

CONAN: A highly, highly unusual, in fact, you describe it is the first airplane - again, the F-16s and those other military aircraft accepted - that is fundamentally different from the Wright flyer.

Mr. LANGEWIESCHE: Right. The characteristics If you use computers, as Zeigler did and fly-by-wire planes do, you can, sort of, within the limits of physics and aerodynamic realities, you can create handling characteristics that are, sort of, dream-like in their qualities. And a normal airplane, you really cant do them. Now normal airplanes, lets say a Boeing 737 or every other conventional airplane, actually fly very well also. So, its not that these are tremendously tricky or nasty machines that are being produced without fly-by-wire. But with fly-by-wire, Ziegler went in and ironed out the wrinkles of handling characteristics and thereby reducing the workload on the pilots, enormously, in sort of the mundane housekeeping chores of flight control.

And thats really what what he was trying to do, in addition to that. And this is what really got to be controversial. He built protections into the system, so that at the edges of performance, where most airline pilots - I mean, the huge majority of airline pilots will never see this, where at the edges of flight performance, the airplane will actively intervene and will override the pilot. Now, that is a very controversial thing to do. And it can be argued in both ways, whether this is right or wrong. I do not take a position on it in this book. Im not a proponent of, you know, of that level, nor am I an opponent of it. I find it interesting from a, kind of, design philosophical point of view. I mean, thats thats about the extent of it.

CONAN: Hmm. And well, well get into that more as we go along. But nevertheless, it also leads to something. You questioned Bernard Zeigler, when you talked to him, about why, if this this aircraft was such a great departure, the flight the safety records of Boeings aircraft are just about the same as airbuses.

Mr. LANGEWIESCHE: Thats really the paradox, isnt it. I mean, thats and its really quite amusing, then, all this effort. And, in fact, a safety record of the A-320, the airbus fly-by-wire airplanes is not any better than those of conventional airplanes. So again, hubris. I mean, he he really was fooling himself to think that that he could create a crash-proof airplane - there never has been one and there never will be one. And pilots are required, of course, to be in the cockpit to keep airplanes from crashing, and again, another paradox, most crashes that do occur - and there are very few - are the result of pilot error. Okay, so again, paradox.

CONAN: Mm-hmm. And how did - well get into more about that, too. But nevertheless, how did the the safety characteristics of the A-320, the fly-by-wire design - play into the accident - the miracle on the Hudson?

Mr. LANGEWIESCHE: Thats a very difficult question to answer, honestly. I mean, I think - we can - Sullenberger and Skiles both were extremely competent.

CONAN: Skiles, the co-pilot - yeah.

Mr. LANGEWIESCHE: The co-pilot, yeah, extremely competent pilots - as most airline pilots are. I mean, people these people live and breathe airplanes year in and year out. They know the machines. They understand the sky and flying to an extent that the public cannot even imagine. So, would this accident would this accident have been so successful had Sullenberger and Skiles been in a conventional airplane like a Boeing 737? I think so. I mean, I have no reason to believe that they would not have performed as well in a measurable sense. So, the affect of fly-by-wire on this particular story is not directly that very simple thing oh, they didnt crash because of a fly-by-wire.

It has to do with - if you really want to understand what was going on in the cockpit. On one level, it simply has to deal with an understanding of the maneuvers that were being made under the workloads, and of the decisions that were being made on a minute level of technology, the interface between pilot and the control services, et cetera.

The book does go into that. And I think in a more fundamental sense, and what really interested me about this particular story - which superficially, lets face it, is not very interesting, its not very deep, actually - it becomes deep in various ways, like many things do, when you really look at them - one of the aspects of it is that the is the symbolism, the political symbolism around the fly-by-wire system. However, it was operative or not operative during this glide as part of the story, the symbolism was very much there.

And it played out silently, which is always interesting, that things are not being said, you know? And then, what was not being said was that this was not a normal airplane and that many people were airline pilots have, and historically, been opposed to it, not so much in the United States - largely in Europe and especially, again, another paradox, in France where the airplane really originated - that the opposition to this airplane is a really interesting thing, which takes us deep into the airline profession and the enormous troubles that it has encountered over the last 30 or 40 years.

I mean, to be an airline pilot is increasingly a pretty rough deal. And the fly-by-wire airplane coming in, in the late 70s and early 80s was, sort of, like sticking a finger in the wound, and the wound was caused by other things. But so it became an interesting story because of that, not because of the nature of the intervention of the fly-by-wire system during the glide.

CONAN: Another paradox, you say, the air the pilot business has become pretty difficult in the last several decades, 20 years in particular, between the deregulation of the airlines and loss of salary, cutbacks and loss of pensions and any number of other things - yet you also point out that while much of the glamour and excitement and interest has gone out of the job, theres no shortage of people lining up to do it.

Mr. LANGEWIESCHE: Thats right. I mean, people dont become pilots I, maybe years past, people became pilots because they - it was they thought it was glamorous. I mean, I think up close it never really was. I mean, I dont think many pilots have really believed that, even during the glamour days of the 50s or before. Maybe in the 20s they did and they were regularly dying for that glamour back then in 27, 28, 29, the early airmail early airlines, but, you know, no pilots arent pursuing glamour and theyre not really pursuing money either.

I mean, yeah, that you take the money if its there. The money is not there anymore, now its sort of, modest middle class income is the best you can expect. But thats not within not everybody is motivated by money, even in America. And, you know, the pilots are in that category. Theyre more like, you could say, an artist whos motivated by doing art or, for that matter, maybe a radio broadcaster whos motivated

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. LANGEWIESCHE: by what motivates you. Im pretty sure its not the money. So, it you know, it is to say that and this came up in the story. I mean, to say that because pilots are making less money now, they therefore the public has therefore less safe is a highly questionable assertion. Of course, if it went on for long time and people were making only, sort of, poverty wages, then you would find the negative selection going on. But were not at that stage.

Now, on the other hand, somebody like Sullenberger, somebody like Skiles, these guys signed on for a different deal. And its been a very rough ride, and it is very sad and I and regrettable that incomes have been cut the way they have. And its dramatic. So its not something to be applauded, but I think we can avoid tying that trend to any kind of particular concern about increasing danger for the flying public.

CONAN: Now, were talking with William Langewiesche. His new book is called Fly by Wire: The Geese, the Glide, the Miracle on the Hudson. If you like to join the conversation, give us a call: 800-989-8255. Email us:

Stay with us. Its the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. Im Neal Conan in Washington.

William Langewiesche is a distinguished journalist. Hes also a pilot and the son of a pilot, background that gives him a unique perspective for his new book, Fly by Wire, about the accident thats come to be known as the miracle on the Hudson. The National Transportation Safety Board, the NTSB spent six months dissecting the accident. You can read all about that in an excerpt from the book on our Web site at

We want to hear from pilots today. Give us a call: 800-989-8255. Email us: You can also join the conversation on that Web site, thats at click on TALK OF THE NATION.

And lets start with Jacob(ph), Jacob with us from Boston.

JACOB (Caller): Hey, good afternoon. I like your show very much.

CONAN: Thank you.

JACOB: I also like Mr. Langewiesches work and also that of his fathers. Its quite a seminal text for flyers. Id like to say one thing, first, about the miracle on the Hudson, as it were. I havent flown that particular plane. I have ridden in it quite a bit, commuting back and forth for work. And its my belief that the fly-by-wire system really wouldnt have been any help or hindrance in that situation.

Thats the type of situation that the computers cant really account for or know whats going on, and Captain Sullenberger would have made very direct, normal, control inputs to handle that emergency. What saved the day there, was really his quick action and the subtleties of his, basically, sleight of hand to be able to pull that off.

CONAN: Im not sure if William Langewiesche takes issue with that.

Mr. LANGEWIESCHE: No. I mean, the point here is that, look, of course, I mean, pilots are making the important decisions. And what was important here, were the decisions. I mean this - to go for the Hudson, to shed this distractions, to concentrate intensely, and to make the right choices. And theres no computer, no fly-by-wire systems thats going to do that. I mean, that is the number one job of the pilot, is to make the right decisions at the right time. And the pilots do this day in and day out on a very regular basis. I mean, this is the nature of the job. So absolutely.

As far as normal control motions Now - and this gets very technical, but you kind of cant do that in an A320 because the A320 is so weird, actually, in the way it handles - and beautiful. I mean, I dont mean weird in a bad way. For me its something of great beauty. But you just cant do, in terms of the interface between your hand and the control surfaces in an airplane like that, you dont do as you do in a 737. You simply cant. The airplane doesnt work that way, so to speak.

So whether - what the effect of that was on this particular glide, probably not very much. I mean, its just an airplane that handles in a different way, and in a better way. I think if you wanted to stretch it into the kind of realm of pure speculation, you could say that in a normal airplane, a certain percentage of the pilots brain is occupied with the housekeeping chores of simple flight control. I mean, this is why, I mean as pilots, we all know were sort of more stupid when were flying than when were not.

It can be hard to make little calculations and things like that if youre hand flying an airplane, especially if youre not if youre in the weather. But okay, therefore, those problems dont really come up with the A320. It handles most of the housekeeping chores, the tedious little things that we dont even notice when were flying a normal airplane but are definitely there.

So, clearly, I mean, I think you could make a highly speculative argument that cognitive abilities increase; that that calcu - that its easier to calculate, do simple arithmetic if youre flying a fly-by-wire airplane, and by hand, than if youre flying a conventional airplane. Of course, most of the time, all these airplanes are on autopilot anyway, so it really doesnt come up. It came up during the glide. The ability to think is, I think, we could make an argument. And I dont know if its a correct argument - it was probably a little bit easier to think during that glide in the Airbus because of the fly-by-wire system. Beyond that, I wouldnt want to go. And as far as flight envelope protections, which is the other thing, the extreme.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Mr. LANGEWIESCHE: At the very end of the glide, right above the water, during the - whats known as a flare, that any pilot knows about, raising the nose and gentling the descent, normal thing for landing. As Sullenberger flared over this very difficult glassy surface without good perspective available to him, without depth percep without really accurate depth of perception normally available on a runway, the airplane came to its aerodynamic limits.

It did this so good with Sullenberger as the pilot, that he actually didnt get to the limits until just before the touchdown. But, in fact, the data shows that the fly-by-wire envelope protection did kick in - alpha protection. And it actually but it came in so late because of the quality of Sullenbergers pilot that it probably didnt matter.

I mean, had it not kicked in, the airplane would have touched down maybe a little bit harder than it did, but probably everyone would have survived. I mean, at that point, the story was sort of written.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Mr. LANGEWIESCHE: However, objectively speaking, yes, actually he went to and engaged in the flight envelope protections which normally, you know, one would never do.

CONAN: Okay. And Jacob, thanks for the call. Lets see, we go next to Don(ph). Dons calling from St. Louis.

DON (Caller): Yes. Good afternoon. You kind of answered the question that I was going to ask already. I was just wondering if, since both engines were lost due to bird strike, if he had electrical power or not, and if so, if the fly-by-wire was still working. And it sounds like it was. So my question was going to be, was it Sullenbergers piloting skills or the fly-by-wire? And it sounds like you kind of already answered that.

And if I could, though, I remember when the Airbus first came out, they rolled it out at the Paris Air Show and it crashed and burned. It was I never really followed up on exactly why that happened. But did the pilots leave too much of that I think they were doing a go-around and they went into the forest adjacent to the airport.


DON: Did they leave too much of the, you know, way too late to override the computer or what happened in that situation?

Mr. LANGEWIESCHE: A very famous accident. I mean, and lets, you know, step aside from tragedy. There were people who were killed. A few people on that airplane were killed. It was not in Paris.

DON: Right.

Mr. LANGEWIESCHE: It was on the border with Switzerland. But it was just a few weeks. It was I think it was Airbus A320 number 8 off the production line. I mean it was brand new. And here Ziegler had built this airplane. This book has got that story in full. Ziegler built this airplane which he believed, really believed, could not be crashed. And by God, they had a senior Air France captain with a bunch of tourists in the back on a kind of a promotional flight.

And he was doing a low pass at an air show and he took that airplane into the protections, and he relied on it. So he did this very, very slow, very low, very showoff low pass in front of a crowd. And the simple matter is, in the end, he was slow on advancing the throttles. It takes, you know, five seconds, six seconds for the power to go from flight idle up to maximum thrust. And you can discount it. You can discount this. And he just didnt he was so slow and so low that he - below the tree level and high angle of attack and high drag.

And the airplane does not defy physics. So it was totally controllable. He couldnt stall it. He brought the stick full back. And normally in an airplane, you cant just hold the stick full back. He had that stick buried. And the fly-by-wire protections were running just as Ziegler had anticipated. It worked perfectly. The airplane worked perfectly, but it wouldnt Ziegler was not anticipating a pilot who would do such a strange and stupid thing. And of course, they crashed. It was a very interesting lesson.

DON: (Unintelligible) pilot error.

Mr. LANGEWIESCHE: Total pilot error. Total pilot error, of course.

CONAN: Thanks, Don. Email from Jane(ph) in Portland, Oregon. What about the Airbus that just fell out of the sky into the Atlantic because the pitot tubes sent contradictory readings. This is a case where the plane on autopilot just went on and on with the pilots oblivious to the trouble that was falling on them until it was too late. Im an old-school daughter at a Boeing company. I feel more comfortable when my pilots are more in the loop. Surely, what happened on the way from Rio to Paris is a chilling object lesson.

Mr. LANGEWIESCHE: It may or may not be. In fact, I mean, this description of what happened is far too precise. We really dont know at this stage what happened. It remains one of the great mysteries. It is simply not known. And of the various conceivable pitot tube-related or non-pitot tube-related failures in scenarios pertaining to specific fly-by-wire system in that airplane dont lead to, by any stretch of the imagination, what little we know about what happened to that airplane. This is a great mystery.

Now, as I say in the book, it may prove to have been a failure of the fly-by-wire system. It may prove not to have been. But it may well prove, if ever we know, it may prove. But even so in that case, you can make an argument which is a pro-fly-by-wire argument, that - you know, this was a very, very rare thing, whatever happened out there was rare, and you know, far more pilots have far more airplanes have crashed because the pilot was, you know, so deeply in the loop.

Im not going to quite make that argument because I really, you know, Im a pilot and I, you know, I understand the essential role of the pilot in flight safety. So I mean, you could get really - start talking and with exaggerated, you know, bombastic statements, and Im not going to do that. I would say that as far as that mysterious Air France flight goes wait, and maybe well have to wait our entire lifetime, but right now dont jump to conclusions because it just doesnt makes sense to do it. We dont have enough information.

CONAN: Fly-by-wire is part of a technological development that is leading more and more - and you cite this in your book too - the best and brightest at the Air Force academy are going not to fly fighter jets but to fly drones.

Mr. LANGEWIESCHE: No, now we get to that. I mean, now were talking about a pilot-less airplane, sure. I mean, one can imagine, I mean technically its certainly possible to create airliners that dont have pilots, and we have, you know, this is not that difficult to do anymore. Obviously thats not going to happen. And there are a variety of reasons why thats not going to happen. So to, you know, were not going to be having the United Predator flight from New York to San Francisco. And - well, I think its pretty obvious.

CONAN: All right, lets see if we can go next to this is Joe. Joes with us from Harkers Island in North Carolina.

JOE (Caller): Hello.

CONAN: Go ahead, Joe.

JOE: Yes, 40 years in aviation, 11 military and 29 commercial. As far as the Hudson incident, I think the day was made when he decided to actually go for a water landing rather than going with the suggestion of Teterboro or returning to LaGuardia. I think once he made that decision, from that point on, almost any pilot could have managed the water landing. As far as the fly-by-wire, maybe a good system for high performance fighters, but in transports, not required, and like you just mentioned about the one that went into the Atlantic out of Brazil, they never will know what happened to that one. But you get to a point where, you know, if you can always end up on manual reversion - in other words, manually fly the airplane as a last resort - youre going to have a good chance of survival.

Mr. LANGEWIESCHE: Well, thats at the center of the - sort of there are two philosophies for fly-by-wire. Boeing now is producing fly-by-wire planes also, but they allow the pilots to override the protections, and Airbus does not allow the pilots to override the protections, and the argument about that back and forth is reasonable on both sides. And its fully explained in the book here with the Ziegler, of course, the proponent of no override and Boeing the proponent of override

JOE: Yeah

Mr. LANGEWIESCHE: And I mean, this is understandable. These are the protections. You know, the real, I mean the 99.999 percent of fly-by-wire is not about protections, its about the ability to iron out things like the Phugoid oscillation, its like auto trim, its like auto rudder coordination -I mean these things, I mean the actual day to day handling characteristics of the airplane and the effect that has on the pilot, so or the pilots - which is a positive effect. And I think nobody argues about that, which is again why - one of the reasons why Boeing also has now gone to fly-by-wire.

JOE: But you know, lets go back to 727 days. Even in an airplane such as that

CONAN: Joe, I hate to cut you off but we need to give some other people a chance.

JOE: Okay.

CONAN: All right, appreciate the phone call. Thanks very much. Were talking with William Langewiesche about his new book, Fly By Wire: The Geese, The Glide, The Miracle On The Hudson. Youre listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. And lets go next to Roger. Roger with us from Anchorage.

ROGER (Caller): Yes, hello there.

CONAN: Hi, go ahead, Roger.

ROGER: Yeah, just a couple of quick comments. Ive flown the Airbus, the A320, as captain for about 4,500 hours, and I guess total on the 737s probably about seven or eight thousand hours. So Im kind of familiar with both, and I just think that the way that Airbus has done things, they certainly have not pilot-proofed an airplane, but they just make it virtually impossible for so many common mistakes that are made to be made.

And I flew the Airbus for eight years and then two years ago changed jobs and Im flying the new generation 737s. And I cant every day I see a mistake made that just - you couldnt do it in an Airbus. And I was very surprised at how much I actually missed that airplane. But they make a good product and Im looking forward to checking out your guests book.

CONAN: Mm-hmm. When you say - I know William Langewiesche wants to get in, but when you say mistakes made - are these, you know, critical mistakes?

ROGER: Well, they have the potential to be critical. Theyre distracters, you know? They take your attention. I mean on an Airbus, when you enter the approach to be flown into the computer, it automatically tunes the correct frequency and sets the correct course. Well, the Boeing doesnt do that. So its possible for you to, you know

CONAN: Get it wrong, yeah.

ROGER: to get it wrong or to forget to do it, you know, with other distractions. And there are just many, many things like that, that you know, it takes care of you, it looks out for you. You know, and the fly-by-wire stuff is great in a very high performance situation, which a typical airline pilot never gets into in his career, but all you got to do is - with the Airbus - is pull back.

CONAN: Uh-huh.

ROGER: You just say, you know, give all youve got and it - the airplane generally does that, whereas with the Boeing, you know, in a wind sheer high performance maneuver, its much more dependent upon pilot skill to extract, you know, the maximum amount of performance out of the airplane. And you know, some guys have that skill, some people dont. And you know, the Airbus says, okay, Ill give you all that I can and usually it works pretty darn well.

CONAN: William Langewiesche?

Mr. LANGEWIESCHE: Its an interesting point you just made, because this question of snatching the stick, as they call it, pulling the stick back in an emergency this is one small corner of possible emergency maneuvers, as you know - but Ziegler told me, the designer told me that they had done studies in Airbus, way back when - hes an elderly guy now - and had found that of the line pilots, internationally, globally, that they tested, that about 10 percent of the pilots could extract absolute maximum performance out of a conventional design they had an Airbus rigged up without, you know, without protections basically and without conventional, conventional.

About 10 percent of airline pilots could do that, about 90 percent couldnt. About a 100 percent thought they could, according to Ziegler, because they never get to the situation. Its one of the problems, and its against, you know, pilots, but I mean how do you access yourself in an environment or at an edge where you really have never been and youre not going to go? What he said with his Airbus design - this was part of his philosophy - was that he would be able to give 100 percent maximum performance to 100 percent of the pilots. So again, a little controversial but that is in this book as well.

CONAN: Roger, thanks very much for the call. Appreciate it.

ROGER: Okay, thanks, guys.

CONAN: Bye. And William Langewiesche, thanks for your time today.

Mr. LANGEWIESCHE: Thank you.

CONAN: William Langewiesche, international editor for Vanity Fair, with us from the studios at the University of California at Davis. His book is called Fly By Wire.

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