Sully, Fly By Wire, and Another Look at the Power of Non-Action

Sully is a good movie. It has a reliable arc, Tom Hanks--excellent as always--Aaron Eckhart in strong support and a decent if slightly inaccurate "true" human interest story.

The movie tackles the landing of US Airways A320 on the Hudson River in January 2009 and its aftermath. The landing sequence is highly accurate. The behavior of Sully and Skiles, the co-pilot, is also highly accurate. The reaction of the NTSB, on the other hand, was likely not as negative/critical of Sullenberger as the movie portrays; William Langewiesche's description of the NTSB hearing in his book Fly by Wire: The Geese, The Glide, The Miracle on the Hudson reminds me of P.J. O'Rourke's comment about the tedious monotony of town democracies: "[It's] like being a cell in a plant."

Arguably by necessity (people go to see movies about people, not mechanical objects), the movie also  entirely ignores the primary focus of Fly By Wire: namely, fly by wire. On January 15, 2009, Sullenberger was flying a plane that did everything it was designed to do to compensate for the loss of the engines, prevent pilot error, and ground itself safely. Pilot and plane together made an astonishingly successful landing. 

Langewiesche does a fine job presenting a balanced account. He extols Sullenberger's achievement and defends every one of his choices (Langewiesche points out that the NTSB later requested simulated tests based on the event; in those that used real-world timing, the test pilots all crashed; Langewiesche is basically saying what Sully says in the climax of the movie).

At the same time, Langewiesche never forgets that pilot error is responsible for a great many (as in most) airplane accidents, a reality that pilots, pilot unions, and even passengers are often reluctant to confront. 

Consequently, one of Langewiesche's most profound compliments for the humans in the story comes during the three-minute glide. It is one of my favorites because it dovetails with my own personal philosophy, one I discuss in my review of Moneyball.

Sullenberger and Skiles are heading towards the Hudson. They have remained calm and collected. In his book, Langewiesche comments on Sullenberger's extraordinary ability to focus in a crisis, and he is doing all of that now. Skiles has followed protocol, running down the (relatively useless) checklist. The flight crew have prepared the passengers for landing. Everyone has done his, her, or its job, including the plane or Airbus.

Here Langewiesche reports the conversation between Sullenberger and Skiles right before the end of the glide:
This is when Sullenberger had the presence of mind to ask Skiles if he had ideas, and Skiles had the cool to say, "Actually not." The fluency they exhibited at such a critical moment, in continuing to discuss matters calmly, helps to explain why their passengers survived [my emphasis].
In another passage, Langewiesche relays the (proper) suggestions from air traffic control and Sullenberger's responses. Sullenberger concentrated on doing his job:
You fly the airplane first, you navigate second, you talk on the radio after that. Sullenberger was clear about priorities. His silences were brilliant [my emphasis].
In a previous chapter, Langewiesche details the crash of American 965 into a mountain in Columbia. The crash was not caused by any mechanical failure but by the pilots' snowballing errors. Many of those errors began and ended with the captain who refused to admit that he had made inaccurate calculations. Langewiesche doesn't spare his criticisms of pilot arrogance. He makes clear as well that a large part of the problem was the growing confusion and miscommunication between the captain and copilot as their mutual guessing led to more and more bad decisions.

Nobody said, "I don't know."

Nobody said, "Nope, I can't think of anything."

Errare humanum est, sed perseverare diabolicum, quotes Langewiesche, quoting Ziegler, the Airbus engineer, quoting the Latin proverb.

To err is human; to persist is diabolical.

1 comment:

FreeLiveFree said...

Tom Hanks seems to be making "hero" films with this and Captain Phillips. Though, I've heard Phillips was even less accurate. Still, it's a good thing in our cynical age.