Monday, 9 February 2009

Mistaking a miracle

"Hero pilot" Chesley Sullenberger has given his long-awaited interview to Katie Couric, the woman who helped torpedo Sarah Palin's vice-presidential shot by, er, asking her some questions. Sullenberger is not Palin, however. The man who successfully brought US Airways Flight 1549 to land in the Hudson River didn't have to say much to impress - actions, in this case, had already spoken louder than words ever could. But he was everything Americans had hoped he would be, and more - authoritative, modest, thoughtful, articulate. But he's also extremely matter-of-fact while recalling the events. "I was sure I could do it", he says, not immodestly. "I had a job to do". A consummate professional, in other words.

Among other revelations, we learn that Sullenberger did not pray during the crisis - "I would imagine somebody in back was taking care of that for me while I was flying the airplane", he told Couric. He added, "My focus at that point was so intensely on the landing. I thought of nothing else."

If he had taken a few seconds out to have a word with the Almighty, it would probably have been fatal.

Sullenberger's success in bringing the plane down without casualties was immediately hailed as a "miracle". Of course, it wasn't a miracle in a supernatural sense, as the parting of the Red Sea or the Virgin Birth of Jesus would have been miracles. No laws of nature were temporarily suspended. But there's a temptation to regard it as a miracle in a looser, but none the less valid, sense, as something wildly improbable, an almost preternatural stroke of luck. Of course, the whole event was highly improbable: most planes do not fly into a flock of geese shortly after take-off, and are not then forced to pitch into a frozen river. As Sullenberger says himself during the interview, he had never expected to be involved in a crash situation. For a pilot to even attempt a landing in such circumstances is an extremely rare occurence. But "extremely rare" is not the same thing as "miraculous".

If you were to win the jackpot on the National Lottery (you don't play, do you? I hope not) it would doubtless feel like a miracle - but somebody wins almost every week. The most improbable events happen from time to time. In a world of seven billion people, there will be an occasional birth of octuplets. Thought that wasn't a miracle either, of course - just bad medical practice.

The philospher Julian Baggini, in a Comment is Free article today, defended David Hume's strict definition of "miracle" as an event which is contrary to natural law. He writes:


Many resist the definition because they do not see why a miracle should not operate within the constraints of physical laws. Take the plane crash in the Hudson, for example. For it to be miraculous, there is no need for the plane to have defied gravity, or Newton's three laws of motion. What made it a miracle was that, for everyone to have survived, an unfeasibly unlikely series of events had to have occurred, but all individually within the bounds of physical possibility.

This explanation will not do. If the series of causes and effects which comprised the crash proceeded without any interference from a divine agency, then there was only a miracle in the figurative sense of an extremely unlikely and fortuitous sequence of events.

Even that goes too far. Was there really anything "unlikely and fortuitous" in the safe outcome of that drama - rather than in the accident that necessitated it? Baggini, it's true, later goes on to admit that "the miracle of the Hudson is far less of a miracle when you think about the time, expense and expertise put into pilot and cabin crew safety training, and aircraft design." But I'd put it rather more strongly. Far from being a miracle, it was almost the opposite of a miracle.

Rick Newman of US News has produced a succinct analysis of what happened that day. Talk of "heroism", he writes, "oversimplifies what it took to land the crippled Airbus A320 and get all 150 passengers off safely, before the plane sank." Instead, various things worked out as they should have done. In other words, Murphy's law took a vacation: if it could go right, it did.

In particular:

  • Sullenberger and the rest of the crew benefitted from the "rigorous training inbred in the U.S. aviation system" - and, in his case, from years of experience.
    Pilots have to fly for years before they can command an airliner, and even experienced pilots must routinely train in simulators an pass “check rides” at least once a year under the supervision of Federal Aviation Administration inspectors. Pilots sometimes gripe about overzealous FAA inspectors, but the oversight contributes to a culture of accountability and fastidious attention to detail in the cockpit.

  • there was a clear division of labour in the cockpit - and everyone did their job properly
  • Sullenberger was prepared for such an eventuality, and executed a "textbook" landing. It was a "magnificent piece of aviation professionalism."
  • the plane was equipped with a "ditching button" that sealed the valves, enabling the plane to float for long enough to evacuate
  • the cabin crew enabled the passengers to exit the plane without panicking
  • and, finally, there was "luck" in the form of relatively benign conditions on the Hudson. Newman writes that "the plane was quickly surrounded by ferries and other vessels able to pluck freezing passengers off the wings and out of the water." But even that, it turns out, was no coincidence: as Sullenberger explained in his interview, "we're trained to land near boats to facilitate rescue".

Talk of "miracles", or even extraordinary luck, devalues the skill of the pilot and crew, the soundness of the aeroplane, the quality of the training or the efficiency of the human systems that backed all of them up. Luck and skill often work together, but skill is by far the more important. No doubt David Beckham feels himself very lucky when an opportunity presents itself to score - especially these days; but if it were me on the pitch, I'd invariably miss. Sullenberger took the aeronautical equivalent of a free kick, and scored. Well done him. God, on the other hand, deserves no credit whatever.

Watch the whole interview here.

4 comments:

WeepingCross said...

You've not noticed that the miraculous element is an understated American ...

valdemar squelch said...

If the plane had plunged straight into side of a cement barge and exploded with horrific loss of life, you could be your bottom Euro that at least one of the customary handful of survivors would tell the US media that 'Somebody up there was looking out for me.' They never say: 'Somebody up there clearly couldn't give a shit about little Timmy in Seat 435. Same goes for that nice old lady I helped with her headphones. Oh, and the priest a couple of rows back. But hey, inscrutable Big Guy or what?'

Anonymous said...

Has it ever been discussed the events leading up to the so called miraculous landing? I'm betting some may say it was a mistake to have not seen the geese.

RavingMad said...

Do you think this guy would be able to expertly crash land the new labour government into, say, the middle of the Atlantic, escaping just in time to watch them all go down with the plane?? We could pay him from all the money saved by getting rid of the fascist bums