Thursday, January 15, 2009

Tribute To Sullenberger

This post is devoted to the heroism of a pilot named Chesley B. "Sully" Sullenberger III. He is the pilot who landed Us Airways Flight 1549 into the Hudson River, without causing one fatality. I think I know how hard he had to work to land that plane safely, and I will tell you why shortly.

First, I share some facts for those of you who are unaware of what exactly occurred yesterday.

Three minutes after flight 1549 took off from Laguardia Airport in NY, only 3200 feet in the air, flying west to Charlotte NC it put in a distress call, explaining it had two bird hits, and asked to return to LGA. LGA gave the plane the ok to return. Before the pilot attempted to turn the plane around, he noticed another runway up ahead and asked what it was. He was informed that it was Teteboro airport (across the Hudson River). He told LGA he wanted to land there. LGA got him the ok to land at Teteboro and then LGA lost all communication with him. It came to be known later, in those moments the pilot realized he would not make it to Teteboro and he decided to bring down the plane in the Hudson River. He prepared the passengers for a hard landing and he LANDED (not crashed), LANDED the plane into the Hudson. In under two minutes, after landing, the forward doors were opened and all passengers and crew made it out to safety.

Some of you who saw the news or read about it are wondering why I bother to document the entire story. Because, you will need to read this over and over again to realize, all the things that played a roll in this plane landing safely without fatality, and you still might take it for granted.

If you believe in G-d, I will throw out the obvious, G-D HAD A HAND IN THIS. But the pilot was his messenger, and the choices this pilot made and the work he put in, made the difference between 155 passengers and a city of people (especially a city of falling airplanes fearing people) coming out alive and uninjured or dead.

In 2003, when my first born baby was just six months old, my parents very generously offered to take us to Israel for the Passover Holiday. Israel's El Al airline is the most popular method of transportation, for Jews traveling to Israel, and that is the airline my parents and my family were set to take. At the time there was a direct flight from Chicago to Israel. But the way it worked was, El Al chartered an airplane to take all the Chicago passengers (many of whom were people I know from my community) to NY to transfer to the very large El Al plane which would carry about 400 passengers to Israel.

Our flight to Israel was set to go just a few weeks after the space shuttle carrying Illan Ramon, an Israeli astronaut, did not make it back. This story was fresh in our minds. But we had traveled to Israel many times before and we were not taking a rocket ship. So we did not expect any problems.

As soon as we were embarking the chartered plane at O'hare, I felt uneasy.

The first thing that made me uneasy - seeing the words "PAN AM" written all over the plane. If you are asking, what is Pan Am, then that should explain my uneasiness. Pan Am USED to be an airline. It is most famous for being the airline that blew up over Lockerbie Scotland. At some point Pan Am went out of business, and obviously - sold their fleet of airplanes to private charter companies. So this plane was OLD.

Second, there were seat pockets hanging by one thread. There were screws internally that looked loose. There was trim peeling away. It was not reassuring. But I figured, all planes need to go through maintenance, so it is probably okay.

As I mentioned, there were many people on the plane from my community. One family in particular, and my family go way back. The patriarch of this family, D.A. was rolling a huge, hard covered golf club case onto the plane. Only there were no golf clubs in the case. In the case was something that is most sacred to observant Jews and needs to be treated with tremendous respect. It was the Torah (old testament scroll). It was being taken to Israel to be donated to a synagogue there. When I saw it, I felt a little better, and I was ready for the trip.

Our plane was a two engine plane. It was compartmentalized into two. I gather the first five rows were the equivalent of first class in modern airplanes. But aside from it's location, there was nothing different about the first five rows with the rest of the plane. My parents happened to be sitting in the third row of the first section of the plane on the left side. I could see my Mother reading her newspaper in the aisle seat. I was sitting in the second row of the second section, so there was one row ahead of me and bulkhead. I was on the right side of the plane in the aisle. Hun was in the window seat to my right holding So in his lap.

Diagonally across from me, on the left side of the plane, right up against the bulkhead were two female flight attendants sitting in chairs that actually faced the back of the plane. I could see them well, they were practically sitting across from me, facing me. Further back on the left side of the plane, near the left engine, was that family we know well.

We took off, and one does not realize how high the plane can get in a matter of seconds. Because in probably less than a minute after take - off was when IT happened.

There were five loud bangs from the left side of the plane, but this did not register as anything significant in the first few seconds. I never heard such loud noises, on any plane I took, but I thought it was the wheels being drawn back up into the plane. I figured that older planes made loud noises when wheels were closing up. But just as I finished that thought, I smelled it. It was the unmistakable smell of smoke. And as this registered for me, the matriarch of that family sitting next to the left engine started yelling for her husband who was only a row behind her DEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE, DEEEEEEEEE... And at the same moment, the plane dropped, and then the wing dipped, and I had my eyes on the flight attendants.

The one closest to the window, removed her five point shoulder harness and stood up very calmly telling D's wife and everyone else to stay seated and remain calm. In the meantime, it was obvious - the feeling of falling and dipping - because your stomach feels like it keeps rising in your abdominal cavity, and you have to hold onto the arm rests of your chair because your seat belt is not enough to keep your backside on the seat as the plane takes another dip.

The flight attendant looked out the window and then lifted a phone receiver right behind her. She and the other flight attendant were so close to me and yet, I could not make out what they said on the phone or to each other. She hung up the phone and calmly said to the passengers (there was no overhead speaker system), "Everyone stay in your seats with seat belts on, the pilot is turning around and we are making an emergency landing back at O'hare." And that was all she said, the next few moments were silent.

My mom, literally, was still reading her newspaper. I was leaning forward and looking to my right at my precious six month old So sitting on Hun's lap. With every dip and drop, I just prayed that we land safely. It is true that one's life flashes before their eyes when they are in that sort of moment. Only it was not my life flashing before my eyes. It was So's future that I saw. I looked at her and saw her in school, and as a teenager, and at her wedding.... I suppose, this is what I saw because this is what I wanted so badly at that moment - for my daughter to have a future.

I do not know how much time passed, but I never felt so relieved to feel those little (slightly more aggressive) hops as the plane touched down. We stopped in middle of the runway and were met by eight fire trucks and two ambulances and some other emergency vehicles. (I learned then that airports have their own fire department/paramedics on site.) I do not know what they were expecting, but I thank the Good Lord that no emergency vehicles were utilized in the end. We sat on the runway for a while, until they could figure out what to do with us. They decided we would not be continuing on this aircraft (big surprise) and they got us to a gate where we disembarked.

We never found out the cause (although there was speculation it was a bird) but our two engine plane lost an engine. Another thing I learned that day, two engine planes can not fly with only one engine.

When we disembarked, the pilot stood at the cockpit with the crew, as they usually do to bid us farewell.... he was drenched in sweat. I learned later, how hard a pilot needs to work, to keep a plane steady for landing while compensating for the loss of an engine. I also learned later that this happens more often than airplane passengers realize.

Some of this information was reconfirmed only last year. I was attending the youth group weekend I attend every year. They had a speaker - a young man from my community who I knew. He was one of the few survivors of a flight that was out of Denver that crashed in Sioux City Iowa. I had remembered this plane crash, I remembered seeing the plane become a ball of fire as it tried to make a landing, but I never really knew what happened exactly.

He told of how his plane started out with three engines, and then one went down. But the pilot assured them that the plane can still be flown with two working engines, which is true, so they continued on. But then a second engine failed, and now they were left with one. And, as I mentioned earlier, a plane can not fly with one engine. So they tried to make an emergency landing at Sioux City airport. In his words - the plane was dipping but was pretty steady. Even though they could feel the plane was working hard to stay steady, at the very last moment, the wing dipped too much and hit the runway, causing the plane to break up and catch on fire. Many died, some had terrible injuries, including this survivor who spoke.

At that moment, I realized, years after my own lost engine experience, just how lucky we were. My plane was trying to make a landing and it was dipping, the left wing, then the right wing. The difference between my airplane and Sioux City's came in just a small moment. Because our plane did it's dipping, but the pilot was able to keep it straight when it was close to the runway, so the wing did not hit the runway, thus preventing any catastrophic impact. But in the last moment, his plane dipped, and that made a whole different scenario.

Pilot Sullenberger must have had a million things going through his head in a matter of moments, but any change in any one condition could have resulted in a different outcome.

Our plane was able to turn around, he did not.

He was flying over a heavily populated metropolitan city at the height of rush hour and had very few options that would prevent him from including fatalities from the ground.

He chose the Hudson, and prepared his passengers and landed the plane as if the Hudson was a runway.

And he kept his plane from dipping, or diving, so there was no impact, because if there was, his plane would have certainly broken up into a fireball.

All his crew and passengers got out safe within two minutes.

I know how hard he had to work to get that plane down safely. So I write this as a tribute to him. Here is to
Chesley B. "Sully" Sullenberger III. The pilot that I would gladly fly with anytime. And I do not take for granted, that G-d was the Higher Being pulling the strings of that airplane.

3 have shown Orah a little love:

Anonymous said...

whew, what a story, was on the edge of my seat, sucha good storyteller!

Brie said...

I agree, you are a fabulous storyteller. Another entry that could so be a movie. Orah!! why don't people comment? i am so annoyed for you!

Orah said...

Brie - I so appreciate your comments, you have no idea. As to why others who read my blog do not comment, I have no idea. Maybe I can blog about my theories (or a friend of mines theories) as to why that is. However, I decided to not let lack of comments deter me from blogging, but comments do help me to know what ppl think - I would like to know.