On a Wing and a Wire

Over four years ago, US Airways Flight 1549 hit a flock of geese soon after take-off. The plane lost power in both engines and the cockpit crew (Capt. Sullenburger and Jeffrey Skiles) had no choice but to land in the only clear stretch of space in the crowded city of New York: the Hudson River.

In a story now everyone is familiar with, not a single soul on board was fatally injured and the entire flight crew was rightly felicitated, awarded and are still regarded as heroes. What Sullenburger and Skiles did was almost unprecedented, and certainly had never been done with as many people on board as this one (150). Even the cabin crew performed fantastically – to evacuate 150 people from a sinking plane with their lifejackets on to the wings and then the ferries is courage under fire.

But spare a thought for the designers of the aircraft. Although the thousands of hours of experience Sullenburger had in flying fighters, airliners and (critically) gliders was of utmost importance, I can’t help wonder if the airframe design from the folks at Airbus and the avionics engineers’ software that managed the aircraft’s fly-by-wire system deserves at least some of the credit.

Yes, with my background I’m sure to have a biased view of this, but it’s because I have some idea of how aircraft are controlled that I think the systems need more love. Unlike older planes that used hydraulics to control the moving devices on wings and tails of aircraft (and even older aircraft that use either metal cables or *gulp* strings), most modern aircraft send signals from the cockpit to banks of computers that are programmed to be smart enough to know what to allow and what not to.

An aircraft without fly-by-wire could start drifting or tilting due to winds/other forces and the pilot would have to manually apply corrective action. The A320 on the other hand, will remain in the ‘attitude’ commanded to it by the pilot unless asked to do so otherwise, with the computers adjusting the moving surfaces (elevators, ailerons, rudder) so that it goes precisely where the pilot wants to go.

This means that the pilot can concentrate on what else needs to be done – which part of the river to touch down on, for instance – and I suspect that makes a hell of a difference in the final outcome.

Given the latest incident that happened in London, I’m glad that there are well-trained pilots around to handle such emergencies, but I’m also glad that the technology exists out there to back their skills for the best possible result.

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