'Fly by Wire': The back story behind the 'Miracle' on the Hudson
Author and Vanity Fair correspondent William Langewiesche dissects last January's "Miracle on the Hudson" commercial jetliner landing in his new book, "Fly by Wire." Langewiesche will discuss his book Monday at Town Hall Seattle.
Special to The Seattle Times
William LangewiescheThe author of "Fly by Wire" will discuss his book at 7:30 p.m. Monday at Town Hall, 1119 Eighth Ave., Seattle; advance tickets are $5 at www.brownpapertickets.com or 800-838-3006, or at the door beginning at 6:30 p.m. Town Hall members receive priority seating.
William Langewiesche has a fine sense of how to tell a story. There was, for example, his account of the sinking of an Estonian ferry in the Baltic Sea, which in his 2004 book "The Outlaw Sea" became a tale of who survived and who died.
Langewiesche's new book, "Fly by Wire: The Geese, The Glide, the 'Miracle' on the Hudson" (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 193 pp., $23), is about the successful landing last January of a US Airways jetliner in the Hudson River within view of Manhattan. Both jet engines had inhaled Canada geese and were wrecked, turning the Airbus A320 into a glider. The incident had some drama, but the problem of making a book of it is that the drama was over so soon. The water rescue was routine — and yet Langewiesche has the skill to make this book well worth reading.
At the time it happened, the pilot, Chesley Sullenberger, was acclaimed for saving all his passengers and crew. Sullenberger had trained on gliders, and Langewiesche credits him for the key decision: to swoop down into the river instead of trying to glide back to La Guardia Airport and risk falling short. But the central message of the book is that credit should go also to the French test pilot, Bernard Ziegler, who convinced Airbus years before to build the A320 as "a semi-robotic airliner" with computerized fly-by-wire controls.
This line of argument is an implicit challenge to The Boeing Co., which adopted fly-by-wire technology years after Airbus did and in a version that gives the pilot the authority to override the computer. On the Airbus A320, Langewiesche argues, it was safer that the pilot did not have that authority.
Langewiesche, a commercial pilot himself, still flies an Aviat Husky, a small plane. This gives him at least some standing to say these things. His assertions may not be too popular among pilots — nor, perhaps, will his portrayal of piloting as "a profession in decline," its pay eroded in the marketplace and its work made easier by machines.
Another part of the book is about the Canada geese — in New York, a population of birds that no longer have the homing instinct and don't go to Canada. A protected species, the geese have multiplied under the protective wing of federal law. To fliers they have become, the author says, "vermin and pests."
Langewiesche is a magazine journalist for Vanity Fair and was for many years a foreign correspondent for The Atlantic. Probably it is the discipline of his magazine work that keeps him from committing the sin of so many writers. They research a thing — Canada geese, airplane crashes or the National Transportation Safety Board — and fatten their manuscripts by pouring into them all they have learned. Langewiesche doesn't do this. There is an economy in his work. He tells about the pilot, the plane, the birds, other jetliner glides and crashes, all in a clear and concise 193 pages.
The result is an account that has drama in it, history in it and ideas in it. It will have particular interest to pilots and engineers, but is written for everyone who rides in airliners and wonders what might happen if those powerful jet engines suddenly refused to work.
Bruce Ramsey is
a Seattle Times editorial writer.
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