Wednesday, 21 January 2009

What Makes a Hero? -- Redux

I crossposted "What makes a Hero" at IBA and I find the following comment too interesting to be missed here:
Just Cause said...

I don't agree that one should be excluded from being a hero if the task undertaken was part of one's job.

The emergency service personnel on 9/11 who lost their lives are regarded as heroes but they were just doing their job also.

I'll admit having too many heroes would result in diluting the status however that doesn't mean we should be overly harsh in denying hero status where an extraordinary feat has occured during the line of duty.

As a trainee pilot I recognise how many factors were involved in bringing down a heavy, speeding chunk of metal safely to rest in water and they are immense. The amount of energy involved boggles the mind and even the slightest of errors could be catastrophic. Maintaing the right angle of attack with no engines thus little or no hydraulic power, maintaining composure knowing that one mistake and lots of people including yourself are going to die horrendously, thinking about your wife and kids getting the news of your death, seeing the water approaching rapidly knowing you only have one shot, is more than just skill - that's a gift!

People should recognise that not every pilot could have achieved what Sullenberger achieved and that there is a large percentage of pilots out there that don't practise hand flying but instead leave the computer to do it all and only do what they need to pass the 6 monthly check rides. The outcome with one of these pilots in charge would have been very, very different.

With this in mind, is Sullenberger a hero? I think the passengers will agree that he is.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009 11:45:00 PM

Food for thought!


Terry Morris said...

Just Cause wrote:

Maintaing the right angle of attack with no engines thus little or no hydraulic power,...

Just Cause may know something about the 737 that I don't know, but I was working under the assumption that the jetliner is equipped with an APU which probably supplies emergency hydraulic power in the case of engine failure due to bird strikes or whatever. I very highly doubt that the pilot, as good as he is and was on this day, could have operated the flight controls without hydraulic and/or electrical power. Which is not to take away from the amazing piloting that is our great fortune to be able to observe.

I'm not sure whether it's correct to call the pilot a "hero", but he performed his job exceedingly well under very precarious circumstances; circumstances that would have likely overwhelmed the average pilot. It is not insignificant, for instance, that he "ditched" the plane in the opposite direction than he took off from, and most pilots and pilot trainees know this.

I don't know the specs for this particular airplane, nor do I know what the winds were like that day in Manhattan, but it doesn't take much of a tail wind to wreak all kinds of havoc on a landing airplane. Moreover, a gust of angular crosswind can cause a plane to yaw or roll, or both, on its respective axes, all of which the seasoned pilot well understands, and must, under such dire circumstances, be extraordinarily sensitive to while at the same time knowing that the slightest overcompensation to such adverse winds could result in catastrophy. Like I said, I don't know the specs on this airplane, but I think it pretty safe to say that it is not a particularly "stable" airplane, like, say, a Cessna 172.

Auster linked to a blog whose owner berated the New York Times for saying that the 737 is not a glider. Well, okay, all airplanes are designed to "glide" to one extent or the other, but the 737 is certainly not designed for gliding. It requires an enormous amount of thrust to keep these "heavys" flying straight and level. Thus, the pilot did not "glide" the airplane to landing on the Hudson, he nosed it in to gain enough airspeed to give himself the chance to ditch the airplane safely.

In short, I think the pilot's actions that day were both extraordinary, and heroic. Others may not like his being called a hero, but he's a hero in my books.

The_Editrix said...

I think most of us are looking for an element of self-sacrifice in heroism. Here, Sullenberger was trying to save his life as well as the lives of the passengers and crew members in his care. Therefore, the comparison with the firefighters on 9/11, who must have been aware that they were very probably going to die, is a non-starter. One of my greatest heroes is incidentally Father Mychal Judge. (I recommend, however, that you better not search for further posts on Father Mychal here. ;-] )

Therefore I said that Sullenberger's checking the sinking plane again and again had an element of heroism.

I don't know whether you have read the interview with Jürgen Vietor. (PLEASE do!) His reaction to the question whether he sees himself as a hero or rather not is quite telling.

In my book, it is alright to call Sullenberger a hero and by no means necessarily hysteric, although I have avoided to call him one in my initial entry. I filed the post under the label "Heroes" because it was the one most applicable.

Regarding the term "to glide", I guess that implies that the aircraft would be able to gain height as well given a thermal lift. Obviously, an Airbus wouldn't.