Sully and the Law of the Sea

Currently, the TV networks are getting their face time with Chesley Sullenberger, the pilot of the US Airways plane that made an emergency landing in the Hudson River January 15. America can’t get enough of him, and that’s a noble instinct.

sullyI suspect commercial aviation has inherited an important principle from military aviation and astronautics: you train for every contingency so that you remember what to do, and you train the hell out of more likely contingencies so that your reactions are second nature, and are as detached from panic as is humanly possible. This is why it’s impressive to consider the amount of flight time under Sully’s belt up to the ditching, and wonder how average it is: more than 19,000 hours, and a similar amount from the co-pilot, Jeffery B. Skiles, no doubt. In fact, as efficiently and heroically the entire crew acted that day, had it been most any American flight crew in the same situation, you’d likely as not have the same result. (And it would be just as heroic, make no mistake.) The airlines, through competition, a desire to serve, and no small amount of regulatory pressure, have such contingencies down to a science.

So, what will be moment in your next flight when you remember the crew of Flight 1549? Will it be during the drills, when the flight attendants demonstrate the safety equipment in that all-too-rehearsed drone? Maybe during takeoff, maybe landing?

The one time I hope you remember it is when a passenger — maybe even you — momentarily forgets that a flight attendant’s main duty is not your comfort.

It is a concern, to be sure. All manner of market forces drive the crew members toward courtesy and hospitality. But that’s not their number-one job. Their number-one job is one you hope they’ll never have to perform, and to which the crew of Flight 1549 actually got a chance: to save your ass.

The deal is as old as time, when we traveled in ships. Passengers would be taken on, as “supercargo”. In a dynamic drenched in tradition, the captain — and crew, but mostly the captain — would forsake his own safety to ensure that of his human passengers. In exchange, when the captain said “Jump”, the passengers were to ask, “How high?”. It was, and is, a benevolent dictatorship. This is one of the reasons countries that prided themselves in their progress toward personal liberties, such as England, had separate Admiralty Courts: normal principles of the Rights of Man didn’t apply in the hull of a ship. Nor do they apply in an airplane.

America doesn’t have separate admiralty courts. But the deal is the same: the captain’s word, or the word of any of his crew, is law. In return, in the increasingly rare instance it’s necessary, they risk life and limb to save yours. Gladly, at a moment’s notice, without being asked, following rigorous training and simulation.

So the next time your pillow is insufficiently fluffy, or there are too many ice cubes in your martini, or you’d like to stand when you’re told (not asked) to sit — or you see anyone else doing so, who’s actions you could help a crew member stop — that’s when you should think of Captain Sullenberger and the brave crew of Flight 1549. And ponder the likelihood that you’ve got as professional a crew pulling for you right then.

Then get some gratitude, sit down, and shut up. Do what you’re told. Convince the other guy to, as well.

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