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Posted: January 17, 2009 5:48 p.m.

A good landing

The most amazing story of 2009 may well have been told already, and we’re only a couple of weeks into this historic year. Makes you wonder what else is in store for us, doesn’t it?

This story has to do with an old joke familiar to pilots, which says that any landing you can walk away from is a good one, and if you can actually use the airplane again it’s a great one.

Last Thursday’s U.S. Air Flight 1549 from New York City to Charlotte, N.C. reminded all who have come to regard sitting in a thin-skinned metal tube 8 miles high traveling just below the speed of sound as a normal thing for human beings to do -- that it ain’t necessarily so.

Shortly after takeoff, the airliner’s engines apparently ingested enough geese or gulls to cause them to shut down. After reporting multiple bird strikes, Captain Chesley B. "Sully" Sullenberger III, realized that without power he could neither return to LaGuardia nor make a small airport in nearby Teterboro.

And so it was that the gray-haired gentleman in the left cockpit seat decided to put his Airbus A320 down in the frigid waters of the Hudson River.

Last Thursday the temperature in New York was 18 degrees, to that point the coldest day of the winter. The Hudson was not frozen, but the combination of 35-degree water temperature, a strong southerly current, and the wind chill factor hardly presented favorable conditions for an emergency ditching.

Still, the 57-year-old "Sully," veteran of more than 40 years of flying, knew the river afforded the best chance his passengers had for survival. Witnesses along the Hudson watched in astonishment as the former Air Force Phantom jockey performed the splashdown.

By now you may know that an ad hoc flotilla of rescue vessels of all sorts converged almost immediately on the Airbus as it began to slowly settle in the water. Some 155 people were on board the airplane, and every one of them survived. There was not one casualty, and no injuries to speak of other than assorted bumps and bruises.

Some remarkable vignettes have emerged from the U.S. Air episode. Perhaps the most poignant is that of an 85-year-old lady, who feared she had no chance at emergency deplaning. But she told of how the other passengers made certain that she was the first one out the door — which lets you know there was more than one hero on that ship that day.

Most of the passengers stepped out of the cabin onto the wing, and off the wing onto a rescue boat. One man even brought his hang-up suit bag with him.

Before he left his ship, Captain "Sully" Sullenberger walked the length of aisle — twice — to ensure that everyone committed to his care was safely off the aircraft. Then, and only then, did this hero become the last to step off the vessel.

For nearly a decade I worked for a regional air carrier based in Atlanta, and for a time served in the Chief Pilot’s Office. I’m convinced from having worked with what I consider to be the finest front-end community in the commercial aviation business and from interacting with crews from around the world of aviation, that pilots deserve every penny they earn and more.

Part of my bias stems from knowing the real-life hero, who saved the lives of many passengers involved in a crash near Carrollton. He was the first officer that day, a gentleman named Matt Warmerdam. He and Captain Ed Gannaway wrestled the Brasilia down despite a left wing, which had basically quit flying due to structural damage. Gannaway did not survive, but flight attendant Robin Fech rescued many passengers, and Matt Warmerdam — despite suffering terrible burns from the ensuing fire — recovered and returned to flying.

That says a lot about any man and if Matt Warmerdam wasn’t already a hero, that’d make him one to me.

Last Thursday’s U.S. Air Flight 1549 episode brought back those memories and at the same time gave me reason to stand and cheer as I watched news footage of the incredible rescue. For TIME magazine’s "man of the year" for 2009, I vote for U.S. Air Captain Chesley B. "Sully" Sullenberger, III.

If "Sully" imbibes at all, I doubt that he’ll ever again pay for his own drink. But some day, when one is hoisted in his honor, a wag will try to keep "Sully" humble by claiming that although it was a mighty good landing in the Hudson River, it still doesn’t qualify as a great one. The wag will pause, for just the right effect, before concluding that a great landing means you have to actually be able to use the airplane again.

Folks will chuckle, and good times will be had by all. But later, if they reflect upon the amazing episode of U.S. Air 1549, they’ll agree with me on this much, for sure.

I’ll take "Sully’s" good landing over a great one any day.

Any day at all.

Nat Harwell is a resident of Newton County. His column appears in The Covington News on Sundays.

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