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First, let me disclaim something: this is probably not going to be the best writing job I've ever done. I know what I do best. What I do best, in writing, is a factual essay on a subject I'm very interested in, where I calmly and rationally explain relevant history and facts and where I compare and contrast multiple opinions. Some of you think I do that well enough that I should be doing it for a living; I can say that when I was well enough to work in an office environment, much of my most highly praised work was in documentation. But this isn't going to be a documentation piece. I want to try to do something here that I'm constitutionally very, very bad at: express strong emotion. Because I keep getting chills about US Airways flight 1549, the same way I kept getting chills for days after Hurricane Katrina, only for the opposite reason. I do not remember the last time I was so proud of so many people at once. It probably hasn't been since I found out about the nothing less than brilliantly designed, brilliantly executed management plan that the survivors at the abandoned, forgotten overflow shelter at the New Orleans Convention Center organized themselves and ran their own shelter by that I have felt this proud of so many people at one time.

And unlike Katrina, I keep wanting to freak out over the things that really should have or could have gone wrong and didn't. For example, not being a New Yorker and not being intimately familiar with the Hudson River at that point, it wasn't until I saw tonight's Rachel Maddow Show that I realized that while trying to fly an unpowered jetliner at the minimum stall speed, Captain Sullenberger had to deal with the teensy little obstacle that the optimum glide path would have crashed him and his passengers into the crowded George Washington Bridge. We'll know when we see the FTSB report, but my guess based on the physics is that he must have managed to dive for speed before getting to it and then use that speed to climb above it ... so smoothly that the passengers described it as "going over a speed bump."

But flight 1549 has something else in common with Hurricane Katrina for me. I keep getting enraged at some politicians and spokesmen for some of the genuinely awful, genuinely stupid, actually malevolently evil things that they're saying about it. And none of them has so far affected me so strongly as New York governor David Patterson's oft-reported description of this as "a miracle." And yes, I know he's not the only one who's calling it that. So let me try to find the under-used, or perhaps over-used, vocabulary to try to explain something very, very important to me. This was no mother fucking "miracle." This was a job. Praise one or more gods on your own time. The real reason that 155 people lived through this is that dozens, maybe hundreds of ordinary men and women with jobs to do were well-trained for those jobs, and when the time came to do so they did their jobs, and they did them right and did them well. Most of them even did the exact right thing on the first try; those that didn't, fixed their mistakes correctly in plenty of time.

Perhaps you misunderstand why this is so important to me, so let me be pedantically clear about it. This is not about religion, not about the majority religion, not about my feelings about my religion, their religion, or religion in general. It is about something much more important than that, or at least, something much more important to me than God, whether "He" exists or not, or the gods I worship, or anything else in the world for that matter, and that is this. If we believe that survival during a disaster is "miraculous"? If we believe that it is entirely up to God who lives or who dies when something goes wrong? Then far too many of us will leave it up to God to save people.

Sully Sullenberger didn't leave it up to God whether his passengers were going to live or die. He spent a large percentage of his professional life taking time out to practice in simulation how to land a commercial jetliner without engines. When he decided that wasn't enough, he then went on to make a professional study, on his own time, of commercial aviation safety, so much so that telling other people what he learned from studying it turned into a second job for him. And (more goosebumps again) he decided, years ago?, that that wasn't enough margin for safety for him, so he went on to learn to become a certified glider pilot. Nor should you call it a "miracle" that US Airways flight 1549 had someone like Sully Sullenberger at the helm, because that's what commercial aviation is like. If you look at the records of every civil aviation disaster in history, you see the same thing in the story of the pilot at the helm of all of them: the same fierce lifelong determination to be prepared for disaster in any form, and the same calm professionalism on the rare occasions that disaster strikes. Yeah, 99.99% of the day to day job is being a glorified bus driver stuck in traffic. But the other 0.01% of the job is part of the job too, and the history of commercial aviation is chock-full of people who did it.

The National Transportation Safety Board and the Federal Aviation Administration have never believed in leaving it up to God whether or not the passengers are going to live through an accident. Since deregulation of the industry, airlines have gone so far as to eliminate pillows to reduce weight in their airliners in order to save weight and reduce fuel costs: you think they were crazy about carrying gigantic self-inflating rafts, or life jackets for all passengers? If those seem like no-brainers to you, let me point out that in the news over the last several months there was a discussion, initiated by we don't know whom just yet, clearly intended to eliminate just those things. The argument went that almost never do airliners land in water. And when they do, they have to crash into the water at a minimum speed of about 140 miles per hour so the plane is going to break up and everybody is going to die anyway, it will be "up to God" who lives and who dies. But people at the NTSB and the FAA were having none of it, and you know why? Sooner or later, some airline pilot was going to have to do what Captain Sullenberg had to do the other day, and they weren't going to leave it up to God; screw the cost, those airliners were going to have rafts and life jackets. That decision saved 155 lives.

Here's another example. Almost all airline air crew employees retire without ever being in an aviation disaster. You could argue that it makes no sense to waste time training them for one, time that would be better served having them just do their job. But over the decades, people have studied the heck out of the disasters that did happen, and as a result we know an awful lot about disaster survival. We know that there are two things that, more than anything else, more even than good equipment and good preparation and good training, decide whether or not a group of people in a disaster together stay alive: someone in a recognized position of chain of command, even if it's just a stewardess in a cheap imitation of a World War II Air Force women's officer uniform, must be clearly seen to be in charge, that person must be relaying good and useful information, and most importantly, that person must remain calm and prioritize keeping everybody else calm. So even though almost no stewards or stewardesses will ever need to know how to do that, we not only train them on how to keep passengers calm during an evacuation, we drill them on it. And because they're not at the top of the chain of command, we put even more training, drill, and intense socio-cultural pressure on pilots, the commanders of the airplanes, to remain entirely calm no matter what goes wrong, and to (if anything) quietly understate the threat. Call it American fighter-pilot macho, call it British military stiff upper lip; call it whatever you like, but that calm professionalism saves lives. Not just in this disaster, but in any disaster. Captain Sullenberger, and his flight crew, are only the most recent vivid example of this in action.

(How well did they do it? According to an interview with literally the last passenger to get off of the sinking airliner, the flight attendants managed to keep things calm and orderly while they and the passengers evacuated a passenger with two broken legs through waist-deep 36°F water, water cold enough to kill you in five minutes. And a woman carrying a newborn infant, too, but it's the passenger with the broken legs that weirds even me out. I would dread having to do that through narrow airliner aisles on flat, dry ground; having to do it on a wet, slippery, slanted floor in water deep enough and dark enough that you can't even see where you're putting your feet? I'd dread that job even if there were no other passengers on the plane; whoever managed that can be proud of having had an extraordinarily good day at work.)

Nor were they the only ones prepared. New York isn't a city with a harbor, it's a harbor with a city, and has been since colonial times. New York's many harbors and riverways are why they built a city there in the first place. And part of waterfront culture in New York City, as in any reasonably well-functioning port city, is the "man overboard" drill. It's another disaster that seldom happens, and almost never during weather where it'd be a seriously life-threatening problem. So what? Practice it anyway. And so even though it was just an ordinary ferry boat captain who first pulled up to the hatch on flight 1549, "man overboard" drills are part of his job. This was just an unusually large "man overboard" drill: 155 people in water that will kill them in five minutes. So? Do it just like you did it every time it didn't matter: use the tools we make the boat carry and the training we make you practice all the time to get life jackets and life preserver rings and hooks and ropes and slings down to anybody in the water, and pull them up. It's just another day at work. If you know what you're doing, if you're any good at your job, you can even show random strangers how to do it. And that is exactly what happened. Real professionals had to do the really scary, really hard parts, like diving into the water in cold-water diving gear to rescue legitimately panicky people who'd drifted away from the floating wreck and from the rafts and who were legitimately about to drown. Being a real harbor run by real professionals who have no intention of waiting for a miracle to save those people, New York harbor has people to do that, and they got there barely in time. But by the time they'd gotten there, virtually everybody else had been rescued ... not just by the Coast Guard and the Transit Authority and the Harbor Patrol, but by dozens or hundreds of ordinary people who saw a job to do and did it.

And contrary to what some deeply sociopathic people in positions of intolerably high visibility and/or authority would tell you, that so many people did their jobs when it mattered is no "miracle of God," either. That's what ordinary people do, every day at work, by the untold billions: they do their job, as best as they can, and when the fit hits the shan, they try to salvage whatever they can. Every job has potential disasters, from tornado strikes to building fires, to mining disasters or other industrial accidents, to random crime on the premises. And in workplace after workplace, whenever there is a disaster, real ordinary working people do what they need to do. They do it calmly, and professionally, and with a little bit of quiet pride in their work afterwards. I do not begrudge anybody the feeling that no matter how bad something went, "that could have been a little worse; I think I did good today." No, what I begrudge is the professional sociopath, of either party and of any religion, who would rob the people who trained and prepared them of their credit, and rob the working people who did the job of their credit, to give "glory to God." God doesn't need the glory; he, she, it or they will be just fine without it. Pay attention to the people who did things right. Thank them, not God. And learn from their example, in case it's ever your turn to be the hero.

And you know what? If you take nothing else away from this essay, this: Be ashamed of yourself if you think that ordinary acts of heroism are somehow unlikely enough or unusual enough to be considered "miraculous."

Oh, and by the way, the first ten minutes of Friday's Rachel Maddow Show on MSNBC were about just this topic, too. Because of their fierce determination to pay for the bandwidth by making you watch the maximum amount of commercial time first, I'm not sure my link to the actual story will work, but I think this is it: Rachel Maddow (with Stephen Flynn), "When Infrastructure Works," The Rachel Maddow Show, MSNBC TV, 1/16/09, transcript available. If you do find the video, be patient with the first minute or two, she's having to "tease" or set up all the rest of the news stories of the evening. Give it especially until about the minute and a half mark, where she brings on former Coast Guard commander Stephen Flynn to talk about what real professionals do to prepare for disaster, and what we should learn from them. After hearing him, I rushed out and ordered his book, The Edge of Disaster: Rebuilding a Resiliant Nation.


( 39 comments — Leave a comment )
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Jan. 17th, 2009 05:10 am (UTC)
As usual, well said. That being said, the pilot did do a very good job, as did the cabin crew. But the passengers were also very well-behaved. If not for this, and a hundred other details, the situation might have turned out differently.

I like an actual "miracle" as much as the next Taoist, but I agree that many people overuse and abuse the word. People often overuse and abuse words. I always say the three most abused words in the English language are; love, hate and sorry.

And you can get emotional anytime, though I do respect your objectivity.
Jan. 17th, 2009 05:14 am (UTC)
Fuck yes.
Jan. 17th, 2009 05:14 am (UTC)
There is one tiny piece of the situation that I might term a "miracle," and that is the good fortune of the circumstances that the pilot was able to exploit into a non-fatality ditch. A huge part of skill is being able to capitalize on whatever luck you're granted, and he was certainly granted some luck.

That having been said -- you're dead right. This situation was the result of dozens or hundreds of people exhibiting raw human competence amidst harrowing circumstances, NOT the blessing of a capricious, interventionist God.
Jan. 17th, 2009 06:10 am (UTC)
Not to diminish Sully's accomplishments but please remember that pilot error is the leading cause of aircraft crashes. The the crash at Tenerife, the single worst aviation disaster in history, was the result of crew error. The Air Florida Flight 90 crash in Washington D.C. was also the result of crew error. Yes, much has been learned from these disasters and many other incidents, but air crew are simply human, albeit humans who do sometimes do great things.
Jan. 17th, 2009 03:23 pm (UTC)
Yes, and when things go wrong because people got it wrong, we call that crew error, not an Act of God. So when things go right because people get it right...
(no subject) - samael7 - Jan. 20th, 2009 08:30 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - anton_p_nym - Jan. 17th, 2009 03:38 pm (UTC) - Expand
Jan. 17th, 2009 06:32 am (UTC)
Fuck, yes. If weren't totally exhausted by this "thank God" shit, I would've wanted to slap someone, but now I don't have to, because you did for me, but much more eloquently.
Jan. 17th, 2009 06:57 am (UTC)
Very much yes to this.
Jan. 17th, 2009 07:32 am (UTC)
Let me add my "YES!" to the chorus.

This is a story about a bunch of professionals doing their jobs damn well on very bad day at the "office". It involved things they hope never would happen, but that they train for just in case it does.

Jan. 17th, 2009 09:31 am (UTC)
There are some MDs who don't get nearly enough credit for "miracle cures" who will appreciate this article even though it's not about medicine.

On a semi-related tangent, the NYC government apparently has about a dozen contingency plans for major disasters in the city. Plane crashes, industrial fires, any number of potential problems. I had the interesting experience a few years back of hearing Rudy Giuliani talk about responding to the 9/11 attacks. They didn't have a plan for it, but because he had the plans they did have down cold, he was able to improvise a response using elements taken from the existing plans.

And before anybody points out the problems with his pre-9/11 policies' on disaster preparedness, I know about them. I'm just talking about what he did that day.
Jan. 17th, 2009 11:02 am (UTC)
Fittingly enough, what happened in the WTC that day could've been so much worse as well, as investigations showed afterwards. Horrible disaster, several clusterfscks in the response but because people largely stayed calm, organised themselves and got each other out (helped greatly of course by the professionals coming to the rescue), the death toll was so much less than it could've been.

(One study also showed that disregarding two pieces of standard advice: not to use your phone or to use the elevators helped a lot as well with evacuating the buildings. Using lifts got so many more people out while being able to phone made people trapped in WTC know what was going on.)
Jan. 17th, 2009 10:00 am (UTC)
Many years ago I had a friend who was a stewardess on TWA (remember TWA?). Every year she had a two-week training "camp" where they got training in first aid and medical and safety preparedness. It was pretty extensive, and intensive. And it was required. I know the very first stewardesses were required to be RNs.

Not a miracle at all.

but it makes me worry about what I would do if we had a disaster at my workplace....
Jan. 17th, 2009 11:40 am (UTC)
Probably the answer is, "the best we could," unless infectious panic sets in. That being said: It's never a bad idea to take a first aid course. There's usually no rule against have a first aid kit in your desk drawer and in your car. False alarms on fire detectors are great practice. Playing "spot the fire extinguishers" and trying to guess where they keep the first aid kit are both fun games when you walk into any new space, or at least I enjoy them. There are tons of great books about disaster survival, many of which are fun reads. None of these things are either expensive or terribly time consuming, and truth be told, they're all kind of fun. But all of that being said: when trouble hits in your building, you may end up being ridiculously surprised at the quiet professionalism of people who are otherwise contemptuously stupid and unpleasant the rest of the time, including rent-a-cops and an astonishingly high percentage of otherwise worthless middle managers. Infectious panic and selfishness are less common responses than most people think; rising to the challenge is much more common than most people think. We sell ourselves short as a species.
(no subject) - koogrr - Jan. 19th, 2009 04:51 pm (UTC) - Expand
Jan. 17th, 2009 12:42 pm (UTC)
Jan. 17th, 2009 12:49 pm (UTC)
As this TPM post suggests, Sullenberger appears to have been damn good AND damn lucky. He had enough altitude to give him options on the ditch. He had ready access to a wide, flat, smooth river -- one that may have been smoother than usual that morning. And the stretch of river he had access to happened to be filled with ferries and rescue craft.

And Sully's passengers and crew appear to have been damn good and damn lucky, too. They handled the situation with aplomb, but they also had Sully in the cockpit, and the impression I get is that even in comparison to other commercial pilots, he was pretty much exactly the right person for this job.

I don't tend to use the word "miracle" myself. But in casual conversation, a "miracle" doesn't have to be a religious event -- it can be nothing more than a good outcome that relies on a major stroke of good luck.

The incredible performances of the human actors involved were necessary but not sufficient conditions for this story's having such a positive ending. To land that plane under those conditions with no fatalities required incredible work by the people in and around the aircraft, and incredibly favorable conditions all the way through. That all those conditions came together that morning? If someone wants to call that a miracle, they can go right ahead.
Jan. 17th, 2009 05:43 pm (UTC)
Tell 'em! I hadn't really quite reduced to words this bit of why I despise religion so much, so thatnks for that.

There was certainly a fair amount of luck, good and bad, involved. The initial problem was just bad luck so far as I can tell. But the most important part of luck is being able to exploit your opportunities; you have to perceive them, have the skill to put them to use, choose wisely, and then DO IT! And Sully managed excellently.

I preach about the relative unimportance of arguing about how to allocate blame in disasters (there always seems to be plenty to go around!). Well, this is the other side of that -- there's so much credit available that I think we can praise Sully AND the cabin crew AND the passengers AND the official rescuers AND the unofficial rescuers AND the FAA regulations, AND still have credit enough left to acknowledge that they were ALSO lucky.
(Deleted comment)
Jan. 17th, 2009 07:31 pm (UTC)
I agree with you completely, and like you want to scream when all the sky-pilots holler 'Miracle!'. My dad is a pilot, and said that this fellow did everything exactly right- down to hitting the 'ditch' button to keep the plane from sinking faster.

There are videos of the actual splash-landing on CNN now- and he did it perfectly- nose up, belly first, beautiful glide with a huge rooster-tail made by the wings. They'll know where to look for the engines, now.

I noticed that there were no engine smoke trails (and the passengers described the silence after the engines blew)- Scully was piloting a glider.

He did his job- and yes, he's a hero, but he did what he's trained and talked about for decades.

I joke about 'magic' and 'miracles' when I coax balky computers into working and pull my users' files out of the fire- but that is also my job- I know computers as well as Scully knows his aircraft dynamics. Yet, I hear those same things quite a lot. I turn it into a running joke. Fixing computers is my job- not a mission from any god.
Jan. 17th, 2009 09:58 pm (UTC)
If you take nothing else away from this essay, this: Be ashamed of yourself if you think that ordinary acts of heroism are somehow unlikely enough or unusual enough to be considered "miraculous."

No, but thank you. What I take away is your opinion, and here's mine:

The fact that many people did their job is not in and of itself miraculous. The fact that everyone's particular piece of this dovetailed together, is actually very lucky and of course wonderful. The use of the word 'miracle' is not bothersome to me, although it's hyperbole, because in my direct experience, success in an event that involves dozens of people working in concert, not all of whom have previously coordinated their efforts, cannot occur unless everyone involved is skilled. But even when that is clearly the case, a certain amount of luck is involved.

Edited at 2009-01-17 10:03 pm (UTC)
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