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Stories Added - January 2009
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The Miracle that Wasn’t
Tyler County Booster - January 2009
When that airliner ditched, the media
went all out blathering about the “Miracle on the Hudson”. But besides being a gross abuse of language, that description is a totally unjustified slur on the airline and the flight crew. That operation was no miracle. It was a textbook handling of an in-flight emergency, and one for which the flight crew had been rigorously trained. The airplane had been built with full provision for just such an occurrence, and as best I can tell, every detail of the emergency procedure was carried our perfectly.
A miracle, by any reasonable definition,
is something that is impossible by natural means. Sometimes an alleged miracle may be subject to a plausible explanation, such as when a normally fatal disease is healed. But a real miracle leaves no doubt; the happening cannot be accounted for by processes of nature. In the case of the Airbus ditching, there was no detail of the operation which could not be explained in rational and natural terms. The flight crew did a marvelous job of averting disaster, for which they are to be commended. But miracle? No, not a chance.
Some folks think of miracles as simply acts of God. Einstein is supposed
to have said “Either nothing is a miracle, or everything is a miracle.” But that approach simply cancels the real meaning; if everything (or nothing)
is a miracle, why do we need a word for it? Miracles are indeed acts of God, but it seems that he only acts when things have got totally beyond our control.
The captain on that plane had a challenging
series of decisions to make when his plane lost power. In my day, pilots were taught to keep a lookout for likely spots to land if our engines quit, and I’m sure Capt. Sully had learned that trick along the way. He had a total power failure in one of the worst imaginable
areas, the densely populated space around New York City. He first thought of trying for LaGuardia, but quickly reconsidered, realizing that he probably couldn’t make it, and that a miss would be disastrous. He wisely chose the only really open stretch for miles around, the relatively uncluttered Hudson. And he apparently went even further, and chose a spot near several river vessels that would be able to pick up the plane’s occupants. And as we all know, it worked.
In this jet age, we hardly ever hear of airliners with engine failure. Jet engines are marvelously dependable, having no reciprocating parts and using
a steady-state power cycle. The prospect of losing even one engine is remote, and to lose both at once almost inconceivable. Yet it is the inconceivable that can be most dangerous. Good pilots – and good drivers – are those who keep a reserve of responsiveness in store, to enable them to cope with the unexpected. In the early days of flying, engines were temperamental. Prudent pilots took a personal interest in their engines, and maintained an attitude of alertness for any signs of impending stoppages. When passenger carrying became a factor, the emerging airlines were eager to guard against “involuntary landings”, which could be hazardous to their customers’ health. Multi-engined planes began to take over the passenger trade, with emphasis on planes such as the Boeing 247 and the Douglas DC-3, that could maintain level flight with an engine out. Single-engine operation in such planes was an absolutely basic part of the checkout procedure. It could get frenetic when full-feathering propellers were introduced. Cartoonist Bob Stevens spoke of the “single-engine four-hand ballet” when an engine cuts out just after takeoff: the pilot and copilot frantically grabbing for throttles, prop controls, and mixture controls, not to mention fuel and crossover valves and feathering buttons; all the while retracting wheels and flaps, avoiding obstacles, and watching their airspeed. I never qualified in a plane with feathering props, but I had a bit of single-engine experience in the Model 18 Twin Beech. But with a light load, it gave no trouble; one engine was enough to get me home. While we were stationed in England I visited an RAF base where they were flying twin-jet Meteors. They were required to do single-engine procedures, which I was intrigued to discover were called by the proper Brits “asymmetrics”! But you didn’t have to feather the jets. Ol’ Ephraim is like me, having spent nearly all his flying in single-engined planes. “’Tain’t much uv nothin’ gits yer attention like that sudden silence when yer engine quits!” Shalom…