Same time next year – another New York miracle?

There I was, tooling along in my Super Cub, minding my own business while towing a banner through the sky low over Staten Island.

The date was January 15, 2010. The reason I know this has to do with the purpose of my mission. It was the one-year anniversary of the Miracle on the Hudson, the day Captain Sullenberger made local heroes of pilots everywhere. A client, wanting to remind people how near to death and eternity we all may be at any time, had commissioned this banner to ask viewers whether they knew what their eternal destiny would be. An irony, as it would turn out. Sully, some others from that flight, and a cadre of media folks would be gathered to commemorate the successful water landing, and my job was to find their boat and show them the banner.

Well the morning had been a bit of a rush, and I hadn’t had time to properly make myself a sandwich, so I had thrown the ingredients into a bag and rushed out the door. After sweeping the ponderous banner into the air, I began on my slow way toward the Verrazano Narrows suspension bridge far in the distance, and my workload tapered off. This provided an excellent opportunity to have a bite of lunch, so there I was, flying with my knees and spreading some mayo when I heard a loud BANG, the cockpit started to get smoky, and the engine lost a lot of power.

Piper landing on Staten Island
Maybe not a miracle, but it made the news anyway.

One thing you might have thought about a Super Cub towing a large banner with low power: it doesn’t glide. It drops.

So picture me there, control stick between my knees, half-built sandwich in one hand, mayonnaise covered knife in the other. I was frozen for what felt like an eternity with a problem I never thought I’d have: “What do I do with my sandwich?” At some point, the angel of logic descended into my clouded head and told me that it didn’t much matter what I did with it, and so I threw it unceremoniously over my shoulder and turned my will toward the emergency.

The prop was still turning, but I didn’t know how long that would last, so I figured I’d leave it turning in case I needed a burst of last minute power. I was directly overhead a large freeway, and losing altitude fast. The good part was that I had been here before, and had at that time noted a good site for an emergency landing, should that ever be required, a valuable use of time as it turned out.  The target landing site was a landfill that seemed to have little in the way of obstructions, and what for a Super Cub equates to plenty of space.

Since I knew where I was going, I made my turn toward the landfill immediately. The wind was unfortunate; it was a crosswind pushing me away from the site, and even more importantly, pushing the banner back toward the freeway. At some point I’d cut the banner free, but I had a tricky balance to work out. I needed to prevent draping a 100-foot banner across heavy NYC traffic causing untold chaos, while still conserving enough altitude to pull off the landing on my target. I had maybe 500 feet to work with and I was going down fast, but I was determined. When I felt I could wait no longer, I pulled the lever and felt the satisfying lurch in my seat. I was still moving earthward, but this could at least be called a glide.

Turning my eyes back to the landfill, I noted a pickup truck in the middle of my planned landing site with vaguely deferred concern, and swapped the radio to 121.5 for the call. “November five seven two six yankee, PAN PAN PAN, engine failure, landing on a landfill on Staten Island.”

Immediately some old curmudgeon responded, no doubt on instinct, “You’re on guard.” I came right back, “This is what guard is for.” Newark International is not far away and ATC asked me for more details, but at that point I was on short final, so I told him I was landing, killed the master, and concentrated.

I didn’t know where the pickup had gone, but he wasn’t in my way anymore, so I went for that landing with relish. I slammed the mixture to ICO the second my main wheels touched ground, not a bad landing either. I hastily unbuckled and hopped out of the airplane just as the pickup truck pulled up. Out came an astonished municipal worker who wanted to shake my hand, and kept repeating “That was amazing!”

Needless to say, it was a long day for me. A news chopper showed up with amazing speed, having been dispatched by Newark Air Traffic Control to come find me. The first cop on the scene apparently suspected me of some unimaginable devilry, and wouldn’t be talked down. Despairing, I finally walked him to the other side of the airplane, pointed to the missing cylinder head and the jagged swath of engine oil painting the entire side of the aircraft. I deadpanned, “It shouldn’t be like this,” and I think that settled it for him.

It must have been a slow day on Staten Island, because before very long, the landfill was covered with NYPD and FDNY vehicles of various types, and I kept getting pulled from one chief to another to explain the situation in the same exact words. As the cops told it, this was where the rubble from 9/11 was brought to rest, and the mayor had needed some convincing that my desperate bid for life hadn’t desecrated the actual site of the rubble. Finally Farmingdale FSDO came to my rescue in a Huey. They got me sequestered, took my report, and kept the cops, fire guys, and reporters away. Too bad they couldn’t keep the hunger away.

I sheepishly ate the sandwich.

Since then I’ve enjoyed thinking about how this might have gone down differently if the cylinder head had held out for just a little bit longer. There would be Sully and company on the boat in the frigid Hudson, watching me actually re-enact his feat of the previous year, albeit at a smaller scale, and thinking, “Is this a joke?”

14 Comments

    • Thanks Doug, I actually didn’t have one that time, which was a bit of a wakeup call, you might imagine! Our gear tended to correspond with the lessons of previous incidents. For instance, I had a friend who had caught his banner rope around the main wheel, and being unable to release it, ended up on his nose. So when the inevitable time came for me to have a rope hung up on the main, I was equipped with a knife. But that’s another story.

  • As an old banner-tow pilot, I have to say good job well done. Like you, been there, done that.

    Oh – – – sorry ’bout the sandwich …………..

  • Minor correction, it was the New York FSDO based out of Garden City.. not Farmingdale FSDO. Great job on the landing!

  • Perhaps I’m that straight-talking person who feels the need to point out that the Emperor has no clothes on … but am I the only person (pilot or not) who can’t figure out why “Sully” should be called a hero by anyone other than people who know nothing about aviation? Understand that I’m not minimizing for a second what he accomplished (saving all his passengers) with good work at an extremely stressful time … but isn’t that exactly what a good pilot is *supposed* to do? In the same way that military personnel (especially Marines, if I can believe what I’ve heard and read) often don’t understand why someone wants to decorate them for “just doing what a good soldier/Marine/etc. is expected to do”, why would other pilots actually call him a “hero”? Every one of us pilots (even those, like me, with “only” a PPL) was given training on what to do when the fan(s) stop(s) turning, and how to maximize the chance that we will land our aircraft more-or-less safely – so what, specifically, did he do beyond that?

    BTW, I don’t want to give you the impression that I’m picking particularly on Sully. Up here in Canada, the fuel tanks of an Air Canada 767 were once (through an almost unbelievable combination of stupidity, ignorance and errors) filled with LITERS of Jet A instead of GALLONS (Canadian OR American), and the aircraft (on its way from Montreal to Edmonton) made an (obviously unscheduled) DEAD-STICK landing at an old military air base near Gimli, Manitoba, which fortuitously happened to be pretty much nearby below when that aircraft “ran out of gas”. I have never understood, for the life of me, why THAT pilot (of the so-called “Gimli Glider”) – who, let us not forget, was the one who had signed off on the inadequate fuel load that his aircraft had received in Montreal) was also proclaimed a hero. Frankly, to me, “all” he did was just to safely bring his aircraft and his passengers down from 41,000 feet to the runway at Gimli – AS HE WAS SUPPOSED TO DO! Good pilot, maybe even a little lucky (regarding the point at which the 767 actually ran out of go-juice, and how close a suitably-long runway happened to be at that moment)? Sure – but a HERO? I don’t think so …

    Am I being unfair to either or both of these guys? If you think so, tell me why; I might be convinceable …

    • I feel that it is right for pilots (and marines for that matter) to view themselves in a different light than the general public does. We didn’t christen it a “Miracle”, that was people on the outside looking in, and I’m going to argue that this is okay.

      As we have long bemoaned, the public gets almost all of its information of our industry in the form of horrible disasters featuring twisted metal and lives cut short unexpectedly. They know little of the level of training and updating of regulation and culture to the singular end of safety. We work tirelessly not only to prevent problems from occurring, but to foster readiness to deal with them when they do.

      So any time they are willing to listen to an account of a problem well dealt with, tragedies prevented, I am willing to let them call it what they will, provided they do so in a positive light. You’re right, this every-day calling is an integral part of our jobs, but we should be proud nonetheless when that hard work pays off.

    • You are right; it is the PICs job to get the plane down as safely as possible. The difference with the USAir flight is 2 things.

      First off the Press had ALOT of footage of the plane ditching, passengers dramatically standing on the wing and the intact wreckage only a half hour drive from most of their corporate offices. The Gimli glider was in the middle of nowhere with no TV crews to be found. As anyone knows, the press has the power to make or break you. In this case, they made it a miracle. I have a feeling Sully would more likely call it proper training and execution with a bit of luck.

      Second, any pilot who has had a emergency know that their stress level goes up dramatically and so does the pitch of their voice… to listen to Sully on the radio voice recorder was impressive to say the least, cool, calm and under control.

      I knew Sully from USAir, we served on the safety committee for LGA prior to 9/11. He is a professional who put the utmost importance on safety, in the air and on the ground. If there was a miracle that day, it was having that crew on board that flight on that day. I think that had a lot to do with the outcome.

    • I always thought Sully was incredibly lucky from a technical point of view. He had flat water, no crosswind component and even the current was in his favor, reducing touchdown speed. The very cold weather, hence lower density altitude, might have helped him land (splash?) a little slower. His landing was skillful, but all the odds were in his favor. Does that reduce the credit he deserves for making a terrible situation survivable? I don’t think so. And ask his passengers if they think he was a hero. That’s what undying gratitude means.

      Occasionally a even a consummate professional should get credit for work above and beyond. The icing on the cake in this public drama is the charm and humility that Sully has always displayed to the media. He comes across as a real, very skilled and caring person who did his job well. To the public, he has come to represent the kind of pilot they want up front, which can only be a good thing. And he has chosen to use his relatively brief moment of fame to educate the public about aviation safety. These things make him a hero to me.

      As regards the Gimli Glider, the incident is remembered only by aviation buffs, and is not part of the popular culture. But, to me, a pilot who will slip a 767 to a landing like a Blanik, never part of his airline training, even in simulators, deserves a lot of credit. He had actual glider experience, which may be the best way to learn real stick and rudder skills that apparently can serve well in unexpected situations. Every accident is the result of a complex chain of mishaps, including misfueling an airliner. Maybe he did screw up, but ask his passengers whether they think he was a hero. Even the “glider” lived to tell the tale. It was just retired from the line last year.

      • To those who have kindly responded to my original post, let me say that I took pains in that post to make the point that I was certainly NOT trying to take anything away from Sullenberger or Bob Pearson (the pilot of the Gimli Glider) when I asked my question about whether they should be called “heroes” – clearly, both of them did fantastic work during their respective emergencies, kept their professional cool, and saved themselves, their passenger and their crews … and they deserve all credit for doing so.

        My question (and perhaps I didn’t make it as clear as I thought I had done) was whether the word “hero” has been degraded or devalued over the years (especially by the press and the public) – from referring to “someone who protects or saves others at the risk of losing his own life” (such as someone who has been awarded a Medal of Honor, for example), to “someone who has done something creditable and possibly – BUT NOT NECESSARILY – brave to help others”. From my p.o.v., such a person might well be classified as a good Samaritan – or an excellent pilot who performed perfectly under stressful conditions – but that does NOT necessarily make him a “hero”. OTOH, the pilot of a single-engine plane in distress who avoids hitting a school or a home during a forced landing, but loses his own life (which he might well have managed to save if he had not concerned himself with the lives of those in the building he chose to avoid hitting), very definitely WOULD be a “hero” in my book.

    • Perhaps if you read the full story on the Gimli Glider the job
      That Capt Pearson did after mistakes by the fueling company the Airline and Boeing you might better understand the amazing job Pearson and his F/O did and at no time did Capt Pearson act like a hero

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