‘Stick & rudder’ experience with powerless flight crucial for all pilots
By Roger Bianchini
Warren County Report
Did powerless flight skills honed at small general aviation airports such as the one here in Warren County, Virginia, help US Airways Pilot Chesley Sullenberger bring his commercial passenger jet down safely in the Hudson River on Jan. 15, saving the lives of all 155 people aboard in the process?
A trio of members and participants in the Skyline Soaring Club’s annual safety meeting held Saturday, Feb. 7, at the Front Royal-Warren County Airport (FRR), as well as their host, Airport Manager Reggie Cassagnol, believe Sullenberger’s experience with glider flight was a contributing factor in his ability to safely guide his US Airways Flight 1549 “Airbus” to a safe “off-field” landing within two minutes of losing all engine power just after takeoff from New York City’s LaGuardia Airport.
While a career-long focus on the wide parameter of airline safety procedures was noted, Sullenberger’s experience as a glider pilot was singled out as a crucial part of the skill sets utilized that day to save an untold number of lives in the midst of heavily populated midtown Manhattan. The primary reason is a glider pilot’s constant focus on what to do if the thermal lift upon which gliders are dependent is lost. For while it was a powerful commercial jetliner bound for Charlotte, North Carolina, Sullenberger piloted on Jan. 15, his sudden loss of power after a collision with a flock of birds put him in essentially the same position glider pilots regularly find themselves in – improvising a landing site.
Cassagnol points out that when gliders are forced to land short of a return to their airport point of departure, it is not termed an accident or even incident, but rather simply an “off-field landing.” And land off field is essentially what pilot Chesley Sullenberger accomplished with his commercial passenger jet on the Hudson River in the middle of New York City on Jan. 15.
Cassagnol, who is a Federal Aviation Agency (FAA) certified safety instructor, said he recommends his CassAviation flight students take at least a couple of glider instructions “to illustrate the point that when the engine stops it’s not over; and to improve their general flying skills.”
‘The Right (Glider) Stuff’
“When you’re flying a powered aircraft, one of the things you’re always asked, especially when you’re a student, is ‘Okay, if the engine fails now, where would you go?’ And it is something [Sullenberger] had rehearsed many times, because in a glider every landing is an emergency landing – they’re all engine out. So you’ve got to make it count. You can’t go around and do it again,” Andre Gerner told us after his own safety presentation to the Skyline Soaring Club. “In terms of developing pure stick and rudder skills, and getting out into the air and finding lift, and there are different forms of lift – glider flying, really I think, makes you keenly aware of what’s going on around you.”
Gerner called himself “an avid proponent” of glider flight as an instructional tool for powered flight in a previous position he held. That position was as Commandant of the Air Force Test Pilot School at Edwards Air Force Base from 2005-2007. It is a position he noted, that has been held by, among others, Chuck Yeager and “Buzz” Aldrin. Yeager’s legendary reputation in the test pilot world was immortalized in the book and movie “The Right Stuff;” and Aldrin was the second man to walk on the moon, behind fellow Apollo 11 astronaut Neil Armstrong.
“As I was saying earlier, the four tier-one military schools would be the Air Force Test Pilot School (Edwards), the Naval Test Pilot School at “Pax” River, the Empire Test Pilot School in England, and Epner, which is the French Test Pilot School,” Gerner said. “Then there’s also the National Test Pilot School, which is civilian, that’s in Mohave, California, and then Brazil and India both have test pilot schools. Those are the major schools in the West – but the point I wanted to make is all four of those [military] schools use gliders in their curriculum because it’s considered important to expose students to that unique portion of the envelope.
“I would require every student to come in and get a commercial glider [license]. I’m just a big fan of that. I think its very effective training. It’s pure flying, flying in its purest sense – stick and rudder, you’ve got to move everything and you’re more in tune with what’s going on,” Gerner says of glider pilot’s relationship to his flight environment.
Another glider pilot and safety expert we spoke with at FRR on Feb. 7, pointed to the entire set of flight skills Sullenberger brought to the table to accomplish what he called a first in the age of jet flight.
“I think glider training is valuable. It helps a pilot with certain skills. But nobody’s ever ditched an airliner full of passengers in the jet era without loss of life,” Steve Wallace observed of emergency landings at sea. “In my view the more incredible aspect of this story than setting the airplane down in tact in the river, was getting everybody off it alive in the cold water. The plane didn’t break up; the captain and the whole crew, I think, did a brilliant job. I personally am not surprised that he was able to set that airplane down in the river in tact. I am surprised everybody got off it alive.”
Wallace’s credentials in the aviation community include being a part of the team that officially reviewed the Columbia Space Shuttle disaster. In fact, Wallace pointed out he had presented a talk on the Columbia disaster at FRR, where one of the astronauts killed on that flight, David Brown, used to fly in on his way to visit his parents in Washington, Va. (but that’s another story for another day)
“I would say [glider flight] is a part of Sullenberger’s background which was tremendous. He was a military pilot as well. And he was also well known in the aviation community for participating in various safety issues, the pilot’s union, national investigations and different things like that. So this was a guy who was well beyond this is the job I’ve got from 9 to 5,” Wallace says.
“He would be the type of person, who in his head, would be – as we talked about on safety issues today – inclined to constantly think in terms of what would I do if this happens and turn over those what-if scenarios. That scenario was beyond anything in a training simulator. That was Sullenberger – what’s my best option? I’m going to put the plane down there,” Wallace said of the man who became a national hero overnight with his quick response to a set of potentially fatal variables.
General Aviation’s value
“Because of increasing automation that you find on airliners, there’s fewer and fewer opportunities for manually flying the airplane – stick and rudder time – because a lot of our philosophies and procedures and practices now are based on using automation,” Skyline Soaring Club member and Sullenberger’s fellow US Airways commercial pilot Curtis Wheeler told us. “There’s a lot of benefit to that, but also it causes a loss of skill in just hand flying the airplane. So what you can realize in an operation like we have here in Front Royal, is we have the opportunity to fly airplanes that don’t have any automation at all. And that gives us a better understanding of just the process of doing that.
“In the landing in the Hudson, you had an airliner being landed in the river right down the middle of a big city. That’s a place where an airliner never goes. I don’t know how current Captain Sullenberger was in flying gliders, but he had, had enough exposure to that circumstance and environment where he had some familiarity with what to expect.”
As for commercial pilot training for flight emergencies, Wheeler added, “We have a lot of training events that we have to cover in our simulators, which are mandatory. But we can’t cover every possible contingency in a simulator because we have a finite amount of time in there. And US Airways has already acknowledged that there isn’t a simulator event for ditching that’s done. We study it. We read about it. We mentally prepare for it. But it’s considered a remote possibility and receives a lower priority in the training hierarchy than a lot of the more likely things that could happen, like engine failures – not that they’re likely but they are more likely than ditching,” Wheeler explained of industry-wide training priorities.
“I think that the best pilots look at all the available resources in aviation to try to prepare themselves – and I think most pilots do this – just to take advantage of all the different resources that general aviation provides in order to give some awareness to these hand flying scenarios, different scenarios that are not routine in airline flying. We’re flying around small airports, closer to the terrain than we would be in any circumstance in an airline operation.
“There’s not a good understanding in America today about what general aviation is doing for people, and we’d like to try and promote that,” Wheeler said of his glider club and its host facility. “We need a lot of help keeping an airport like Front Royal Airport open and operational because it brings economic value to the community. In the case of our soaring club here, we come out to Front Royal, we patronize local businesses for lunches and things like that … It gives access for medivac flights. We’ve had law enforcement that’s operated out of this airport, all kinds of utility that comes from having a General Aviation airport – not to mention the stick and rudder skills that can be honed in a relaxed and recreational environment for both amateur and professional pilots – and that was a big payoff that day in New York City.”
Brief commercial message
For information on scenic glider or powered flights over the Northern Shenandoah Valley, as well as flight instructions offered out of the Front Royal-Warren County Airport, call the airport at 540 635-3570.
Perhaps of particular interest in the current economic climate, other than improving basic flying skills, former Edwards AFB Test Pilot School Commandant Gerner pointed to a side benefit of glider flight to jet pilot training – cost. That cost effectiveness calculates to $60 to $70, including tow plane expenses, per glider flight, to what Gerner estimated is now between $5,000 to somewhere under $10,000 per hour of powered jet flight, even for the low-cost T-38 trainer. – “And when you get into an F-15 or F-16, the number gets even bigger,” Gerner points out of the huge cost of jet flight. “But the glider, that’s $26 an hour plus the tow.”