Sully—the Clint Eastwood-directed movie about US Airways pilot Chesley Sullenberger’s crash-landing of a passenger plane in the Hudson River seven years ago—is a hit. The story carries a comforting message: flying is so safe that even a crash is just an inconvenience. But safety itself breeds danger. This week, federal regulators released their report into the near-catastrophe of Delta Flight 1086 from Atlanta to New York 18 months ago. The litany of human errors that investigators catalogued got little attention. But the report should serve as a reminder: flying is not inherently safe. It is safe only when people respect the system that keeps it safe.
If Delta Flight 1086 had crashed at LaGuardia on a snowy day last March, killing some of the 132 people on board, the tragedy would have generated front-page headlines for weeks. Americans can be thankful that they haven’t seen such headlines in more than seven years. No American airliner has fatally crashed since 2009, when 50 people died as a Continental commuter flight crashed near Buffalo. Americans who fly today fear terrorism, not mechanical or human error.
This safe stretch is unprecedented. Before 2007, America rarely had a year without a major plane disaster. In November 2001, American Airlines Flight 587 crashed in Queens, killing 265 people. In 1996, TWA Flight 800 crashed off Long Island, killing 230. In 1990 and 1985, Americans saw three major air crashes in the news. Go back further, and commercial flight was truly dangerous. Last year, Judy Blume published her novel, In the Unlikely Event, based on her experience growing up in the 1950s near Newark Airport, when three planes crashed in just eight weeks.
Delta’s flight last year came close to breaking the current streak. On March 5, the airliner’s plane was “substantially damaged,” investigators from the National Transportation Safety board concluded this Tuesday, when the Boeing MD-88 ran off the runway and stopped just short of Flushing Bay. Almost everything that can go wrong on an airplane did go wrong on Flight 1086.
The pilots faced an immediate challenge: bad weather. With plenty of experience, they knew that landing at LaGuardia in the snow would be a challenge. As the NTSB reports, they spent “considerable time” during the flight analyzing whether they’d be able to stop the plane on the runway. They also asked for braking reports 35 minutes before landing. But crews from the Port Authority, which runs the airport, were clearing snow, so no one was landing planes to report conditions. Plus, the Port Authority wasn’t using the best technology to measure “friction,” even though it said it was doing so. The airport operator’s “policies . . . need clarification,” investigators said.
Pilots, then, didn’t get braking reports until 16 and eight minutes before landing, when they learned that conditions were good. Upon emerging from clouds, though, “the flight crew expected to see at least some of the runway’s surface,” the NTSB reports. Instead, “the flight crew saw that the runway was covered with snow.”
Faced with “situational stress,” the captain essentially panicked. Because of that stress and “operational distractions,” investigators say, he landed the plane with an “aggressive” move, putting the engines into reverse to help stop the plane. The move exceeded the setting for a “contaminated runway” by 59 percent. That abrupt strain on the plane caused a “loss of aerodynamic directional control”—basically, Flight 1086 was a runaway plane.
What ultimately saved the passengers and crew was dumb luck. After the crash-landing, it took 17 minutes to get everyone off the plane. The crash broke a wing and knocked out the plane’s communications, but the plane didn’t catch on fire or explode. The captain—likely still rather stressed out—“did not convey a sense of urgency to evacuate the cabin,” investigators concluded. Flight attendants were “confused” and didn’t follow proper procedures. The fact that passengers “climbed off the plane dressed in their heavy winter coats and scarves”, as ABC7 reported, shows either that flight attendants didn’t clearly instruct them to leave everything behind, or that passengers didn’t listen, wasting time that could have been critical.
After the evacuation, the plane’s crew couldn’t give rescuers an accurate passenger count, leaving out two infants. “Flight and cabin crews . . . should be able to provide emergency responders with an accurate passenger count . . . upon exiting the airplane,” investigators noted, because such information could be lifesaving in a rescue effort.
Federal investigators painstakingly set out this chain of events as a warning. Had just a few things gone differently, their report could easily have become a document of the banal series of actions, inactions, and errors that caused dozens of people to die. In a crisis, frightened crew members and passengers did the wrong thing, multiple times, with their errors compounded by the fact that they and others didn’t do their jobs properly before it became an emergency.
The NTSB account is a useful reminder: airplanes are not magical machines, and they cannot land in any weather. Plane and runway engineers build in room for error. But ground and flight crews still can make enough errors to use up all of that room. The crew and passengers of Delta Flight 1086 were fortunate that their bad day never became more than a news blurb. Sometimes fate is on your side. But sometimes, it isn’t. When flying is this safe, it’s easy to forget that it’s not safe at all—and that it’s better for professionals to depend on good practices, not good luck, to save lives.
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