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.