Several people have written to me directly, or sent letters to The Economist, to ask whether the ditching of Southwest flight 1549 on the Hudson River on January 15th contradicts a point made in my article, “Fear of Flying”, from 2006. That article was a tongue-in-cheek piece about in-flight announcements, imagining what a brutally honest one might sound like on board an imagined airline, Veritas Airways, “the airline that tells is like it is”. One of the things the piece pokes fun at is the complex explanations airlines provide about the procedures for a water landing, with life jackets, slides that detach to form rafts, and so on, given that water landings almost never happen:
In the event of a landing on water, an unprecedented miracle will have occurred, because in the history of aviation the number of wide-bodied aircraft that have made successful landings on water is zero.
I made the same point in more detail an earlier piece about pilotless planes in 2002. So, is this now wrong, given Captain Chesley Sullenberger’s heroic achievement this month? No. There have been a few successful water landings by narrow-bodied aircraft in the past, as this Wikipedia page points out. And flight 1549 was an Airbus A320, which is a narrow-bodied aircraft. The only attempt to ditch a wide-bodied aircraft, a 767, in 1996, was unsuccessful and the plane broke up, killing 125 of the 175 people on board (though, to be fair, the pilot was fighting with hijackers at the time). So the point made in my article stands: the number of wide-bodied aircraft that have made successful landings on water is still zero.
That doesn’t mean it’s impossible. The main difficulty is that when touching down on water, the plane must be perfectly level, so that the engines on one wing do not make contact with the water before those on the other wing. Landing on a river, as flight 1549 did, rather than the sea, would no doubt improve the chances of success — as would having a pilot as skilled as Captain Sullenberger. The striking thing about the video footage of the event is how quickly people emerged through the exits onto the wings. This underlines the one serious point in my article:
The flight attendants are now pointing out the emergency exits. This is the part of the announcement that you might want to pay attention to. So stop your sudoku for a minute and listen: knowing in advance where the exits are makes a dramatic difference to your chances of survival if we have to evacuate the aircraft.
A New York Times piece provides some more detailed safety tips in the light of the incident. The best point, which I had not heard before:
When you sit down, count the number of rows or seats to your nearest emergency exit — in front and behind. “If the plane is damaged or filled with smoke and you need to get out, it could be a very chaotic environment in the cabin. It is best to know how many rows you may need to go in the dark cabin to get out.
I’ll be doing that from now on!