The news has been chock-full of the recent plane crash at LaGuardia. (In a recent writing discussion, one person chided an author for misusing the idiom as “chalk-full.” Another poster responded that, since no normal person uses the phrase “chock-full,” that it didn’t matter how it was spelled. I, of course, couldn’t resist.) This plane crash has captured everyone’s attention, not just because airplane disasters always do, but because no one died. Amusingly, I notice that the article I linked to here refers to the incident now as a “splashdown.”
By now you have the details: taking off from LaGuardia, the US Air jet sucked birds into two engines. The birds were big enough to cause immediate, devastating damage, knocking the spinning turbines off enough that one engine burst into flames. The pilot, Chesley B. “Sully” Sullenberger, reported the double bird strike, requested permission to return to LaGuardia, then said “unable,” and asked permission to land at a New Jersey suburban airport, again came back with “unable.” He then told the passengers to brace themselves because the plane was going down, and he landed the plane in the river. Hence the “splashdown.”
What’s remarkable here to me, is that Sullenberger kept his head so well that he not only navigated a spectacular landing, but he kept communicating the whole time.
Those of you who know me know that I have a consuming interest in plane crashes. In many ways the plane crash is both a seminal incident in my life and an ongoing metaphor for me. Sullenberger trained first as an Air Force Academy pilot, like my father. And where many cockpit recordings from plane crashes yield only frantic babbling, this one shows a pilot so well trained that he continued to let everyone know what was going on, even as he dropped an Airbus loaded with people into the Hudson River.
They’re calling him a hero, and that’s probably appropriate. The kind of hero who coolly walks through the plane twice to ensure all the passengers were off. The kind who smiles and nods graciously when people thank him for their lives.
But I think what really captures us here is that this is different than the usual metaphor. If a plane crash symbolizes how everything can go abruptly wrong, snipping threads in an instant of impact, then this is the reverse. The threads that weren’t snipped; how it almost happened, but didn’t. How someone who keeps his head can avert disaster. That a disaster can be magically converted to a splashdown.