Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

Excerpt: 'Fly By Wire'

'Fly By Wire' Book Cover

The Inquest

In June 2009, six months after Chesley Sullenberger struck a flock of Canada geese and glided his wounded US Airways Airbus to a successful ditching into the Hudson River, a public hearing on the case was held in Washington, D.C. It was organized by the crash investigators of the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), a small and in de pen dent federal agency that is renowned for its technical expertise. During the six months since the accident, the investigators had been dissecting the case and studying the factors behind it. Despite Sullenberger's skillful flying and the survival of everyone aboard, it turned out that there was much to consider here. Simply put, the successful outcome had been a very near thing. Furthermore, NTSB investigators are professional worriers. On the occasion of this hearing, they were going to release the information they had gleaned and, under the guise of taking sworn testimony from expert witnesses, publicize some of their concerns. What can be done about flocking birds, about jet engines, about water landings, about passenger briefings, about life rafts about never again requiring people to stand on sinking wings to keep from drowning? What can be done about never again depending on such a chain of good luck?

The NTSB is meant to be pure, the speaker of truths no matter how impractical they may be. As an agency it is built that way. It cannot write regulations, mete out fines, impose technical standards on designs, or force its opinions on its fellow government bureaucracies. It does have the power of subpoena and can swear in people to encourage them to tell the truth, but this is more for show than for meaning. Rarely have people been prosecuted for lying to the NTSB, though people have lied to it plenty of times. In the end it really only has the power of persuasion at its disposal. Some on the staff call this the power of the raised eyebrow. Their highest hope is for incremental progress measured in years. That was to be the purpose of the hearing now. For two full days and part of a third, the NTSB was going to engage with a parade of pilots, officials and engineers, few of them able to speak in clean English, and most of them wanting to make opening statements using PowerPoint displays. The standard stuff. The facts were known. For the audience it would be rough going, with no coffee allowed.

Those were sultry days in the capital. The sun cooked the haze. Every night thunderstorms roiled the skies overhead. There were probably twenty such hearings happening in the city. This one was held at the NTSB Conference Center, a windowless auditorium two levels below the street, across from the Smithsonian Institution, in the hotel and office complex called L'Enfant Plaza. You could certainly feel safe there. Finding it the first morning required navigating through an underground shopping arcade among subdued office workers streaming in from the connected Metro station, most wearing identity tags on nylon straps around their necks. You endured the crowd, descended a narrow escalator behind people who could not be bothered to walk down it, and finally came to the auditorium after passing through a security check manned by uniformed guards of Washington's skeptical underclass. Later, in a private moment, I asked several of them if they did not want to sit in on the proceedings, and they laughed. They said they preferred to stay in the anteroom and talk about television.

The auditorium had a sloping floor, and comfortable seats for 350 people. It was about half full for the first few hours, and nearly empty by day three. Presiding over the proceedings was an NTSB board member, a former US Airways pilot and safety expert named Robert Sumwalt, who, as it turned out, had once fl own the very same airplane involved in the crash. Sumwalt is an avuncular Southerner with a vague or distracted manner, and he seemed to have trouble tracking some of the testimony that followed. His role was largely ceremonial anyway. He sat on a raised platform at the front of the room, flanked by two senior staff members, with assistants seated behind. Along the left wall, another raised platform accommodated two rows of "technical staff," the accident investigators who had done the work and who would conduct the principal questioning. Across from them, along the right wall, was another raised platform, where the witnesses would sit while testifying. Between these three platforms, at tables in a well, sat teams from the officially admitted parties--various players deemed to have a stake in the public record of the proceedings. They represented the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), the manufacturers of the Airbus and the engines, the flight attendants' union, the US Airways pilots' union, and US Airways itself. It was understood that these people had agendas that were largely self-protective, but which they would express only implicitly, and in earnest terms of public safety. They, too, would have a chance to question the witnesses for the record.

The hearing started on time. Sumwalt read an opening statement, explaining the proceeding in general terms, dismissing any conflict of interest that as a former US Airways pilot he might appear to have, and finishing with a request that people take note of the exits from the room for use in the event of an emergency. Apparently he thought you just can't be too careful in life. That was the tone of the entire hearing.

The chief investigator led off with a bare-bones summary of the accident: it occurred on January 15, 2009, at 3:27 p.m.; there were 150 passengers and five crew members aboard; they were in an Airbus A320 bound from New York's LaGuardia Airport for Charlotte, North Carolina; the time from liftoff to the bird strike was 1 minute, 37 seconds; the birds were Canada geese at 2,700 feet; the geese caused a nearly complete loss of thrust by wrecking both engines; the glide to the river lasted 3 minutes, 31 seconds; the total flight time therefore was 5 minutes, 8 seconds; after the water landing the first rescue boat arrived in 3 minutes, 45 seconds; one flight attendant and four passengers were seriously injured; there were no fatalities.

Then the questioning began.

Sullenberger was the first up--at age fifty-eight, a tall, trim, white-haired man with a clipped white mustache, who seemed a bit overdressed for the hearing, in an elegant dark suit with a handkerchief in the breast pocket. He had arrived at L'Enfant Plaza in a limousine, accompanied by handlers from the pilots' union, and had entered by a side door to avoid the press. Not that he was averse to publicity. During the period since the accident, he had engaged one of the top publicity firms in San Francisco, near his home in suburban Danville, California, and he had made many appearances--accepting awards left and right, attending Barack Obama's presidential inauguration, standing with the crew for an ovation at the Super Bowl, throwing out the opening pitches at baseball games, mixing with movie stars at a Vanity Fair party, and sitting for interviews on national television. He had also signed a $3 million deal with HarperCollins to write two books, the first to be an inspirational autobiography coauthored by a bestselling personal-advice columnist for The Wall Street Journal, and titled Highest Duty. About the book's content, the publisher had said, "Sully believes his life experience prior to the emergency landing was a preparation for the success. And that life's greatest challenges can be met if we are ready for them." The publisher's statement had evoked sardonic comment nationwide, as had an Internet rumor--false--that the second book would contain inspirational poetry. Except among his most devoted fans, hero fatigue was setting in. The comedian Bill Maher captured the mood on HBO by showing a picture of Sullenberger waving to a crowd, underscored by a caption reading "Pompous Pilot." Maher said, "New rule. One more victory lap, and then you really have to get back to the cockpit."

It was funny but unfair. People who thought that Sullenberger had lost his bearings were underestimating the man. In private he remained the same person he had been before, not pompous at all, and so quiet about himself that at times he could seem shy. Intellectually he was the equal of the observers who thought he was grandstanding, and he knew as well as they did where he stood on the American scale. He had been diligent as a boy, and had become a diligent pilot. The career had certainly narrowed his experience in life. But he nonetheless possessed an attribute that those who mocked him had overlooked: he was capable of intense mental focus and exceptional self-control. Normally these traits do not much matter for airline pilots, because teamwork and cockpit routines serve well enough. But they had emerged in full force during the glide to the Hudson, during which Sullenberger had ruthlessly shed distractions, including his own fear of death. He had pared down his task to making the right decision about where to land, and had followed through with a high-stakes flying job. His performance was a work of extraordinary concentration, which the public misread as coolness under fire. Some soldiers will recognize the distinction.

Sullenberger maintained his concentration through the water landing, the evacuation of the airplane, and the brief boat ride to shore. Then a strange thing happened to him. He was no Charles Lindbergh seeking to make history, no Chuck Yeager breaking the speed of sound. The Ubermensch era of aviation had long since faded. But he crashed during a slump in the American mood, and overnight he was transformed into a national hero, at a time when people were hungry for one.

At that point he began to concentrate again. After decades of enduring the insults of an airline career--the bankruptcies, the cutbacks, the union strife, a 40 percent reduction in salary, the destruction of his retirement pension--he was determined to leverage this unexpected opportunity to maximum advantage. He was due to retire in seven years, at age sixty-five. Now he was suddenly on a ride as critical to his family as the glide to the river had been, but mirrored upward, and with a destination less easy to discern. They would go where the ride took him, his athletic wife and their two teenage daughters with college ahead. Sullenberger said he was moved by the flood of mail he had received, and was glad to serve as an inspiration to so many people. Probably that's right. But he was not self-delusional--for instance, he ignored some clamoring that he run for public office--and he seemed to be focusing on two rather more practical goals. The first was financial stability. He was forthright about it from the start, when he announced through the press that he would consider all offers and possibilities. He was going to gain from this event, and why not? The second goal was slightly less obvious. It was to promote a union argument, couched as usual in the language of safety, that holds that if pilots are not better paid, airline travel may become increasingly unsafe.

Sullenberger is a dedicated union man, as any self-respecting pilot at US Airways should be. In the month following the accident, he appeared before Congress with his entire crew, and after receiving a standing ovation from the staff and committee members, he shifted the subject. He said, "I am worried that the airline piloting profession will not be able to continue to attract the best and the brightest." His message was that successive generations of pilots willing to work for lower wages might perform less well in flight, and especially during emergencies. Sullenberger seems to believe this, but it is a questionable assertion, since it links financial incentive to individual competence, and ignores the fact that, with exceptions, the "best and the brightest" have never chosen to become airline pilots, at whatever salary, because of the terrible this-is-my-life monotony of the job. Furthermore, although unusual stupidity is often fatal in flying, the correlation between superior intelligence and safety is unproven, given the other factors that intrude--especially arrogance, boredom, and passive rebellions of various kinds. If you had to pick the most desirable trait for airline pilots, it would probably be placidity. But safety aside, no pilot of whatever mental capacity enters the profession expecting to see his income cut, particularly when airline executives continue to increase their own compensation, as they have. This is what Sullenberger was legitimately complaining about to Congress. Ever since airline deregulation in the United States in 1978, which did away with route monopolies and noncompetitive pricing, and especially since the terrorist attacks of September 2001, which had all sorts of profound effects on the industry, most major American airlines have been miserable places to work.

Two days after the Hudson River landing, accident investigators interviewed the pilots in New York's Marriott Downtown hotel, near the site of the former World Trade Center. They started with Sullenberger's copilot, Jeffrey Skiles, age forty-nine, a man with twenty thousand hours of flight time, who had briefly served as the captain of a smallish Fokker twin-jet but had essentially been relegated to the position of copilot for his entire career because of successive reductions in the company ranks. Like Sullenberger, Skiles has a mustache. He has an alert, pleasant face and an unassuming manner. He mentioned wryly to the investigators that he had become perhaps the most experienced copilot in airline history. He was new, however, to the Airbus, and had just gone through transition training after years of wearing grooves into the right seats of Boeing 737s. At the time of the accident he had only about thirty-five hours of Airbus time, and was flying his first four-day trip in the A320 and its kind. He had never flown with Sullenberger before and did not know him socially. He had been impressed by Sullenberger's competence in the cockpit, as Sullenberger had been impressed by his. But now, because of all the publicity, he was going to be forever linked to this story, and known as the second fiddle for the rest of his life.

An NTSB investigator summarized Skiles's career path. He wrote, "He learned to fly at age fifteen or sixteen. He flew for a cargo company, then a commuter airline, and then was hired by US Airways in April 1986. He was a [Boeing] B-727 flight engineer when hired, upgraded to copilot until the airline parked the B-727. He then went to the DC-9 until the airline parked it, the Fokker until the airline parked it, then the B-737. His decision to move to the Airbus was voluntary, his only voluntary move, although it came just ahead of the company parking the B-737s."

Skiles was straightforward about the experience. He told the investigators that he had never enjoyed even the most enjoyable part of the career, which most pilots agree is the training. He said that he had once gotten a letter of praise from the company's director of operations--for making "great" public address announcements to the passengers. That was about it. He had an unblemished record, as most pilots do. No, he did not fly except on the job. Private flying is very expensive. Over the past eight years he had suffered a 50 percent reduction in salary, forcing him to supplement his income by working as a general contractor on his days off back home in Wisconsin. As might be expected, he was angry about this. When the investigators asked him if he enjoyed working with US Airways, he answered flatly, "No one likes working with the company." He remained on the job because the alternatives were even worse.

I don't mean to imply that Skiles is a bitter man. He is not. But in this interview he was completely frank. When asked about teamwork in the cockpit during the glide, he said there was little need for it, and little was involved: he had started into the checklist to restart the engines, and Sullenberger had done the flying. The division was plain and simple, and pretty obvious at the moment. You could arrive afterward and call it an exercise in Crew Resource Management--sorry, I mean CRM--if you insisted on fixing things up with formal language. CRM is indeed a useful term. Until recently it stood for Cockpit Resource Management and pertained only to pilots, until someone realized that the C could stand for Crew, allowing flight attendants into the program. Entire industries are built on this sort of progress. But frankly the glide had been very short, with no space for elaboration. I mean, actually, fuck it, the pilots had simply flown the airplane--and what else were they going to do? Skiles did not quite say this, but it is what he meant. As for the training they had received in dual-engine failures, and the procedures for water landings, he said it was premised on the latest philosophy about taking time to assess emergencies, and so it had not helped at all.

Sullenberger's interview was subtly different. As Skiles had done, he spoke mostly about technical details: what he had believed about the aircraft systems, what his logic had been during the glide, which switches he had thrown and why. He was in a strong position to answer, having exhibited profound piloting skill. He freely admitted to his uncertainties, without the slightest sign of defensiveness. Nonetheless, he was clearly more aware of the political context than Skiles had been, and of course of the opportunities now suddenly arising. In retrospect, he was concentrating hard. When asked if the US Airways training had helped him to handle the emergency, he said absolutely it had, and he cited the principles of maintaining control, managing the situation, and (oddly, in this context) landing as soon as possible. He also credited the training in Crew Resource Management, the clear definition of duties, and the clear communication of plans. An investigator asked him how he liked working at US Airways. He answered that it is "a good company." The investigator asked if the company exerted "external pressure" on the crews. The question, though poorly phrased, was an invitation to expound on the corporate culture of the airline. Sullenberger certainly understood this. In his waterlogged bag in the Airbus he had a library book, Just Culture: Balancing Safety and Accountability, about precisely such issues in the airlines and similar organizations. Nonetheless, he answered, "I'm not sure," and left it at that. He was watching his words. He was determined to make no mistakes. He went out of his way to praise Skiles and the flight attendants. At the end he made a statement for the record. He said, "I could not be more happy and pleased and gratified that we got 155 people off the airplane. And it was due to the professionalism of my crew: Jeff, Donna, Sheila, and Doreen." He did not want to speculate on how training might be improved. He was tightly self-controlled.

Six months later he responded in the same manner during the NTSB hearing in Washington, D.C., though with more forethought apparent in his words. He sat very straight and gave short answers without elaboration or drama. The main questioner was a youngish NTSB investigator named Katherine Wilson, who had a fresh Ph.D. in applied psychology from the University of Central Florida, with a specialization in Crew Resource Management. Sullenberger referred to her as "Dr. Wilson." She referred to him as "Captain Sullenberger." She asked him a few technical questions, but for the most part just threw him flowers.

"How do you think that your experience with over twenty thousand hours as a pilot helped you during this experience?"

"It allowed me to focus clearly on the highest priorities at every stage of the flight, without having to constantly refer to the written guidance."

"Looking back at the accident event, is there anything you would do differently, if you were faced with that situation again?"

"I think what we did, the situation we faced in the time we had, First Officer Jeff Skiles, and Flight Attendants Donna Dent, Sheila Dail, and Doreen Welsh, we did the very best we could. And I'm proud to have been a member of a highly experienced, highly trained team."

"What lessons do you think we can learn from this accident?"

"I think it's the importance of CRM, the importance of a dedicated, well-experienced, highly trained crew that can overcome substantial odds. And working together as a team can bring about a good outcome."

"Is there anything else you would like to discuss today that we have not asked you so far?"

"Just to reiterate my gratitude for such a good outcome on January 15, and the amazingly quick response of the first responders from New York and New Jersey."

"Great. Thank you."

A French investigator who had been seconded to the panel tried to get a bit more technical about the Airbus itself, a radical semi-robotic European design that was known to the investigators to have participated actively in the survival of the passengers. In private, some of the test pilots and engineers from the Airbus company had been seething for months over Sullenberger's silence on the subject. His refusal to mention the unique qualities of the airplane was understood as a partisan stand in the context of a long and painful history, in which the A320, the world's first semi-robotic airliner, had been vehemently opposed by the unions, because it is designed around the idea that computers fly better than any human can--and indeed, in some emergencies, should override the pilots entirely, and firmly assume command. This is a complex and emotional subject, since it goes to the heart of a profession already in decline. No one had dared to bring it up directly--or to call attention to the airplane's contributions--lest this be seen as an attack on Sullenberger and an attempt to diminish his accomplishment. In that, there would be no advantage to anyone. Not to the NTSB, US Airways, or Airbus itself--and certainly not to the union. Nonetheless, for many in that hearing room, it was a subject very much in mind.

The Frenchman seemed to be thinking about it, because he asked a question that remotely pertained to the airplane's design. He said, "Could you please explain to us how you did choose the airspeed when you tried to do this emergency landing?" It was pretty light stuff.

Sullenberger answered with jargon. He said, "Yes. As we were not configured for landing, we didn't have a reference speed displayed on the PFD that we could fly. So I chose to use a margin above VLS."

"Configured for landing" means full flaps and landing gear down. "PFD" stands for "primary flight display." "VLS" stands for "velocity lowest selectable."

There was a moment of silence.

The Frenchman probed no further. He said, "Thank you, Captain."

Dr. Wilson echoed his gratitude. She said, "Thank you, Captain Sullenberger." To Robert Sumwalt, she said, "Mr. Chairman, we have no more questions at this time."

It was the turn now for the officially designated parties to ask their own questions. A woman from the flight attendants' union led off. She suggested to Sullenberger that rather than announcing, "Brace for impact," as he had over the cabin address system, he should have announced, "Brace for water impact."

Sullenberger easily batted this aside.

She then led him through a series of questions pertaining to the fact that only two of the four life rafts in the airplane had been usable, and that even if they had been loaded to their maximum capacity, forty-five people would have been unaccommodated. She asked Sullenberger, "Where do you think the additional forty-five people would have ended up?"

Sullenberger showed no sign of annoyance. He said, "I think that they would have ended up where they ended up. Or they would have had to remain inside the forward fuselage while awaiting rescue."

She said, "Okay, taking the scenario a little bit further, assuming that rescue had not arrived prior to the aircraft submerging, where do you think these additional forty-five people would have ended up?"

Sullenberger balked. He said, "I would hesitate to speculate any further."

So she speculated for him. She said that without rescue boats on the scene, after the airplane had sunk, those people might have ended up in the water. She emphasized the word might, and repeated it, as if she had carefully considered some alternative. Then she asked,

"How long do you think, taking into consideration how cold it was out there, that passengers not accommodated in rafts would have been able to survive, in cold water . . . if rescue boats had not been very close?"

Sumwalt finally intervened. To Sullenberger he said, "Um, are you an expert in survivability in water?"

Sullenberger said, "Member Sumwalt, the answer is no."

Sumwalt said, "Okay, we'll defer that question."

The woman said, "Okay."

This passed for high drama at the hearing. The audience remained admirably calm. The Federal Aviation Administration went next. The questioner was a large man who proved to be one of the shrewdest participants in the process, but whose main purpose seemed to be to build an obscure defense against any esoteric implication that his agency might somehow have done something wrong. He asked a question about command authority:

"How did the US Airways 'Captain's Authority' portion of the Flight Operations Manual play into the actions on this flight?" Sullenberger answered as if he had been writing a book. He said, "The captain's authority, or autonomy, the ability to make independent judgments within the framework of professional standards, is critical to aviation safety. It is codified in our Flight Operations Manual that the captain is ultimately responsible, and the final authority to all matters of flight. The buck stops here. And so we have the independent ability to make the right choice, to do the right thing every time, despite the occasional production pressures."

Airbus was next up. The team was fronted by a man of obvious intelligence who seemed like a slick Washington lawyer, but turned out to be something of a star pilot himself. He was American. Others on the team were French, American, and German, and included engineering test pilots who were intimately familiar with the airplane and its systems. Their expressions were guarded. For months they had pored over a wealth of information extracted from the airplane's flight data recorder, and they had run multiple simulations of the glide. They knew that the airplane's flight-control computers had performed remarkably well, seamlessly integrating themselves into Sullenberger's solutions and intervening assertively at the very end to guarantee a survivable touchdown. The test pilots believed that the airplane's functioning was a vindication of its visionary design. But they were not going to bring it up. They were going to get through this hearing and be done. Their front man said, "Good morning, Captain Sullenberger, but all of our questions have been answered by Captain Sullenberger, the technical panel, and the other party members. Thank you, sir."

Sullenberger said, "Thank you."

The engine manufacturer had no questions.

US Airways had no questions.

The pilots' union representative wanted to get back to crew resource management. There wasn't much to say. In fact, if you wanted to pick one accident in which elaborations on teamwork don't need to be made, this would be a good one to choose. It was I'll fly the airplane, you try to restart the engines. But crew resource management has become a central dogma, the sine qua non of airline flying, and because Sullenberger's landing had been successful, it seemed necessary to mix it in now. Sullenberger was willing to try. The union man asked him to describe his use of CRM that day, and Sullenberger said, "We had a crew briefing at the beginning of the trip, on Monday, January 12, where we aligned our goals, we talked about a few specifics, set the tone, and opened our channels of communication. So we functioned very well the entire time."

It was a valiant attempt. The union man seemed satisfied. The questioning shifted to the center stage, to each of the senior staffers on Sumwalt's right and left, and then to Sumwalt himself. Sumwalt was deferential. He said, "Tell me, in your mind, what made the critical difference in this event. How did this event turn out so well compared to other events that we see at the Safety Board?"

"I don't think it was one thing. I think it was many things that in aggregate added up. Again, we had a highly experienced, well-trained crew. First Officer Jeff Skiles and I worked well as a team."

It was time to let Sullenberger get on with his day, but Sumwalt was luxuriating in the exchange. He thanked Sullenberger for his analysis, and after a rambling preamble about some other case, he asked him what he thought about when driving to work before a trip. The answer was evidently not supposed to be unrelated to flying--his wife's exercise program, the need to pick up razor blades, annoyance with the offerings on TV. Sullenberger said, "I think that one of the many challenges of our profession is that it has become so ultrasafe, where it's possible to go several calendar years without a single fatality, as we've just done recently, that it's sometimes easy to forget what's really at stake. Sometimes . . . we make it look too easy . . . So one of the challenges, I think, is to remain alert and vigilant and prepared, never knowing when or even if one might face some ultimate challenge."

This is what he thinks about when going to work? How often? It was unfair to pose such questions to Sullenberger on the stand. But Sumwalt kept at it. He asked, "What can we extract from your mind-set, from the things you've learned, to hand over to others in the profession?"

You could almost hear the groans.

Sullenberger said, "I think it's important as we transition from one generation of pilots to the other that we pass on some of the institutional knowledge. No matter how much technology is available, an airplane is still ultimately an airplane. The physics are the same. And basic skills may ultimately be required when either the automation fails or it's no longer appropriate to use it."

At the Airbus table, people were listening with wooden faces, some staring down at their hands. They had had the grace to keep their peace before. But what design did Sullenberger think he had been flying? Nothing against him, but the automation in the accident airplane had emphatically not failed, and indeed had been integral to Sullenberger's control all the way down. Either he was mouthing generalities or this was a coded and familiar slap.

Anyway, he did not continue with it. He said, "In addition to learning fundamental skills well, we need to learn the important lessons that have been paid for at such great cost over generations. We need to know about the seminal accidents, and what came out of each of them. In other words, we need to know not only what to do but why we do it. So that in the case when there's no time to consult every written guidance, we can set clear priorities, and follow through with them, and execute them well." He was patching his response together. Mentally he reached for the library book that had drowned in the airplane: Just Culture: Balancing Safety and Accountability. New York mayor Michael Bloomberg had given him another copy, along with a key to the city. Sullenberger seemed to have finished the book by now. He said, "I think also it's important to note that nothing happens in isolation, that culture is important in every organization. And there must exist a culture from the very top of the organization, permeating throughout, [one] that values safety in a way that it's congruent, that our words and our actions match. And that people feel free to report safety deficiencies without fear of sanction. So all these things must happen together. We must balance accountability with safety."

"Thank you. In your mind does US Airways have that culture of safety?"

"I think that they do, and we're working very hard to make it what it needs to be every day."

"Thank you. I want to follow up on that by asking, in an interview that you had with the Safety Board, the question was, are there any external pressures from the company, and you said, 'I'm not sure.'

What did you mean by not being sure?"

Sullenberger trod carefully here. He said, "I think there are a few situations that can occur where a captain is questioned. And again we must balance accountability with safety. The captain's authority is a precious commodity that cannot be denigrated. It's the ability to do the job. It's the ability to maintain professional standards at the highest level. No matter how inconvenient it may be. So we have to work every day to make sure that's the case on every flight."

Sumwalt said, "I want to bottle your mind-set, and make sure that everybody is drinking from that same bottle."

There was more to come in later sessions, when witnesses started talking about Threat and Error Management (TEM), Advanced Qualification Programs (AQPs), and Task Saturated Cognitive Skills (for which there appears to be no acronym yet). On the second day, two Asian men in identical gray suits fell asleep side by side with their heads back and their mouths hanging open. During Sullenberger's testimony, at least, people were in the presence of a celebrity. In the end, Sumwalt asked Sullenberger for final thoughts, and he summoned the discipline to answer one last time. He said, "I think it is that paying attention matters. That having awareness constantly matters. Continuing to build that mental model to build a team matters."

"Thank you. Captain Sullenberger, I have no further questions. I want to thank you very much for your testimony, for being here this morning, and for representing the piloting profession as you do. You are excused from the witness stand."

Sullenberger had gotten through. He is a brave and decent man. He said, "Thank you, Member Sumwalt," and soon made his escape.

From Fly By Wire by William Langewieshe. Excerpted by permission of the publisher, Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit

William Langewiesche