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A couple of days ago, January 15, marked the 10th anniversary of the date upon which Capt. Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger, his Airbus crippled just after take-off by bird strikes that took out both of his engines, mentally calculated his altitude, airspeed, and the distance to the nearest plausible landing strip, and realized he couldn’t make it.

Ever so calmly, he informed air traffic control that no, he wouldn’t be trying for LaGuardia, and couldn’t make Newark. He was ditching in the Hudson.

This simple, yet to my ears rather lovely little piece of electronica was written in honour of what Sully managed that day. I first heard it on the soundtrack of the underrated movie Drive, went searching for it on iTunes, and listened to it happily for a long time before it hit me that it could only be about one thing:

A pilot on a cold, cold morn’
One-hundred fifty-five people on board
All safe and all rescued
From the slowly sinking ship
Water warmer than his head so cool
In that tight bind knew what to do
And you have proved to be
A real human being and a real hero

It wasn’t just the piloting skill that impresses. It was the presence of mind, the preternatural calm with which the crisis was handled. Sully would have known that ditching an airliner in water is almost guaranteed to end in disaster, but that’s because water landings almost always happen at sea, with high waves that invariably catch a wingtip, or slam into and over-stress the airframe as the plane tries to settle in. A river, though, is different. The Hudson was placid that day, and while smooth water isn’t tarmac, it’s actually a lot better than a dead stick landing on some bumpy patch of ground that’s liable to be too short, and surrounded by buildings, or maybe trees. Ditching in the river is thus a perfectly good option, even a great one, provided you can bring it in just right: gear up, nose a little high, catch the tail first, and ease it down. The smooth, rounded bottom of an airliner is almost like a boat. You could skid to a nice, slow stop and settle down relatively smoothly, though you’d have do it with finesse – water is incompressible, and if you hit it fast enough you may as well be landing on concrete. So, finesse it would have to be.

That’s the physics of it, but figuring that out and deciding to go for it in the time allotted would, for anyone else, be a superhuman and highly improbable exercise in dispassionate logic. Laguardia was tantalizingly close to being within reach, and other pilots might have felt an overwhelming urge to try for a proper runway landing. You get the impression, though, that the river as Option C was just part of Sully’s hard-wiring, no extra thought required, let alone second thoughts. They might not make LaGuardia, but the river was a sure bet, as well as the longest runway on Earth, if you looked at it that way. Option C thus posed the least risk, and there’s no indication that Sully had any doubts at all, as if he’d run the equations and come up with the irrefutably higher value. This is the stuff of test pilots.

Listen to the exchange between “Cactus 1549” and the tower, attached below. You can hear Sully realize very quickly that he might end up in the river, even as they try to divert him to Newark or maybe Teterboro airport in New Jersey, and clear runways for him; while at first still hoping to make it to an airport, any airport, Sully was considering the Hudson just 40 seconds after sucking Canada Geese through both turbofans. As the conventional options are eliminated, Sully’s voice doesn’t even rise in pitch.

Tower: OK Cactus 1549, it’s going to be left traffic on runway 31.

Sullenberger: Unable.

Just like that. “Unable”. I don’t sound that calm, cool, and collected if I can’t get the cork out of a bottle of Veuve Clicquot.

Then, simply, We can’t do it. We’re going to be in the Hudson. He doesn’t even cuss.

With the plane ditched as gently as possible (still hard enough to rip up the tail section), and the Airbus sinking slowly enough to get everybody out the doors, Sully did a last search of the plane, up and down the aisle, making sure that nobody was still left on board, and then exited himself, the last man off.

In its breathy melodicism, A Real Hero seems to celebrate not just Sully’s raw skill and cool-headedness, but the care and concern with which he did his best to get everybody down safely, all of us knowing that to him, his own fate was irrelevant, and he would have skidded the plane into a concrete wall and used the cockpit as a de facto crumple zone, if that meant saving everybody else.

Here’s a great piece on the incident from Vanity Fair, well worth a read if you’re interested:

https://www.vanityfair.com/culture/2009/06/us-airways-200906

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