February 20, 2009

Two US Airways Accidents -- Then and Now

By David Paulin

It will be months before the NTSB releases its accident report on US Airways Flight 1549, the "Hudson Miracle," captained by America's newest hero, Chesley B. Sullenberger III. Until then, one thing can be safely inferred about the January 15 accident: its pilots were far better prepared to deal with the unexpected than were two US Airways pilots departing LaGuardia Airport 20 years ago. Flight 5050, a Boeing 737-400, ran off the runway and into Flushing Bay after an aborted takeoff. Two of 57 passengers died. Coincidentally, Flight 5050 used Runway 31 and was heading to Charlotte, North Carolina, just like the "Hudson Miracle" flight.

Sometimes, fate seems to conspire against pilots -- or smile on them. "Hudson Miracle" copilot Jeffrey Skiles, for instance, observed that "we were lucky" in several respects. One is that it was a clear afternoon -- as opposed to a pitch-black night. The Hudson River was calm, allowing for a smooth splash down. And Flight 1549, he noted, had just the right crew to handle the emergency that presented itself. "Really, after hitting the geese, everything worked in our favor," he said, speaking on PBS's "Charlie Rose Show."

On Flight 5050, on the other hand, just about everything that could go wrong for the pilots did go wrong. Moreover, in the weeks after the accident they encountered as much grief from the news media as from their ill-fated flight.
The "Hudson Miracle" flight has handed US Airways an unintended public relations bonanza, allowing it to show off the professionalism of one of its air crews. On the other hand, Flight 5050 was a public relations nightmare.

A look at the two flights reveals much about changes over the past 20 years in the nation's airline industry and US Airways -- changes concerning flight operations, flight training, and cockpit design. One thing, however, remains the same -- the news media and what sometimes happens to those whom it praises as heroes.

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