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No heroics

The safe solution is always best

There were times as an airline pilot when I preferred being professionally incognito. I especially felt this way at social gatherings attended by non-aviation people.

As soon as someone discovered that I was an airline pilot, I was asked the same tiring questions: “Have you ever had an emergency?” “What is the most dangerous thing that ever happened to you?”

Most people seemed disappointed that I had no war stories to tell. My career contained none of the dramatic events of which movies are made. This is why—when asked what I did for a living—I often sidestepped the issue by saying that I was a heavy-equipment operator, which was true. Such conversations then turned quickly to other subjects.

A friend recently asked a more interesting question about my career. She wanted to know what I considered to have been my proudest moment, the time when I best utilized my skills and knowledge. I said that my most challenging test might have been when I was a relatively new captain. A strong cold front had marched through Philadelphia and left in its wake runways of ice and strong northerly winds. We were on final approach to Runway 27 when the tower reported a 29-knot crosswind, maximum allowable for our Boeing 727. Braking action was said to be nil.

The gusts and buffeting crosswind seemed to worsen as we approached the runway threshold, and it took all my concentration to hold the glideslope and remain on the centerline. Touchdown wasn’t pretty, but we were down. And guess what? There really was almost no traction. The trijet slid in a crab and seemed intent on leaving the runway. We had to use the flight controls to prevent an excursion. Reverse thrust seemed to worsen directional control and the brakes were almost useless.

We finally heaved a collective sigh of relief after taxiing off the runway and onto the taxiway. (Sailing might be a better description of how we maneuvered the aircraft on such a slippery, wind-blown surface.) It was a masterful display of airmanship that really did require mustering all my experience. My co-pilot and flight engineer massaged my ego with enthusiastic accolades.

While inching our way to the terminal building, we saw an Eastern Airlines 727 land on the same runway and under the same conditions, but it didn’t make it. The “three-holer” slid off the downwind side of the runway, and almost 100 passengers had to evacuate into the Arctic wind.

Suddenly, I was not so proud of what I had done. Suddenly, I realized that our flight could have wound up in the weeds. Suddenly, I realized that the Eastern captain might not have attempted that landing had he not been encouraged by seeing that we had made it. He had no way of knowing that I was just plain lucky and that the fickle finger of fate would point in his direction. My landing in Philadelphia should not have been attempted. We should have instead headed for our alternate, Boston, and rewarded our judgment with a lobster dinner. As captain of the flight, it was my fault that we did not.

As my experience, skill, and knowledge continued to accrue, I began to appreciate the adage stating that “the extraordinary pilot uses his extraordinary experience and extraordinary knowledge to avoid having to use his extraordinary skill.” Any planning or in-flight decision that results in having to exercise heroic effort usually reflects the poor judgment used to make that decision. Superior skill should be required only when the ordinary becomes extraordinary.

Such events typically are the result of unforeseen mechanical or system failures. A remarkable example is when the center engine of United Airlines Flight 232, a McDonnell Douglas DC–10, sustained an explosive, uncontained failure causing the loss of all hydraulic fluid and rendering the flight controls totally inoperative. The crew established very limited pitch and roll control by varying the thrust of the two underwing engines. That the airplane crash-landed on a runway at Sioux City, Iowa, and that most of those aboard survived was nothing short of miraculous.

A stunning example of extraordinary skill while flying a lightplane was demonstrated in 1970 by aerobatic pilot Neil Williams. While practicing his routine, Williams heard a loud bang and saw that a wing spar had broken. The wing was in imminent danger of bending up and breaking off. Williams quickly rolled inverted to reverse the lift vector and keep the wing in place. Immediately prior to landing, he rolled upright so as to land on the wheels. The wing then failed, but the aircraft was so close to the ground that touchdown was completed without incident. True story.

Barry Schiff
Barry Schiff
Barry Schiff has been an aviation media consultant and technical advisor for motion pictures for more than 40 years. He is chairman of the AOPA Foundation Legacy Society.

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