Fly by Wire The Geese, the Glide, the Miracle on the Hudson

William Langewiesche




Trade Paperback

208 Pages


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On January 15, 2009, a US Airways Airbus A320 had just taken off from LaGuardia Airport in New York when a flock of Canada geese collided with it, destroying both of its engines. Over the next three minutes, the plane's pilot, Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger, managed to glide it to a safe landing in the Hudson River. It was an instant media sensation, the "Miracle on the Hudson," and Captain Sully was the hero. But how much of the success of this dramatic landing can actually be credited to the pilot? To what extent is the "miracle" on the Hudson the result of extraordinary—but not widely known, and in some cases quite controversial—advances in aviation and computer technology over the past twenty years?

In Fly by Wire, journalist William Langewiesche delves into the fascinating world of advanced aviation. From the testing laboratories where engineers struggle to build a jet engine that can systematically resist bird attacks, through the creation of the A320 in France, to the political and social forces that have sought to minimize the impact of the revolutionary fly-by-wire technology, William Langewiesche assembles the untold stories necessary to truly understand the "miracle" on the Hudson, and forces us to question our assumptions about human beings in modern aviation.


Praise for Fly by Wire

"As in American Ground, his 2002 account of the cleanup at the World Trade Center site, Langewiesche is less interested in human drama than in clinical analysis . . . No doubt, brave pilots like Sullenberger and Skiles deserve hero worship. But Langewiesche makes a convincing case for the valiant A320. The enduring image will be of its drifting nose-high in the icy Hudson, 'refusing to die.'"—Clyde Haberman, The New York Times Book Review

"Mr. Langewiesche uses Flight 1549 as the pretext for a smart, confident, wide-ranging discussion of commercial aviation. He assesses the low morale at most major American airlines caused by bankruptcies, pay cuts, union strife and the decimation of retirement pensions. He refers to these things as 'the insults of an airline career.' He painstakingly reconstructs what happened that January day on Flight 1549, and spends a good deal of time talking about the damage birds can do to an aircraft. He writes about how the National Transportation Safety Board goes about its work, and about the physics of gliding. The book is also filled with hair-raising stories of other flights in peril, the kind of thing Mr. Langewiesche writes about as well as anyone alive. He is so familiar with airplanes that his descriptions of how they work are simple and revelatory."—Dwight Gardner, The New York Times
"Langewiesche gives us an insightful analysis of the changing world of commercial aviation. As an author, Vanity Fair magazine editor and pilot, Langewiesche knows this territory well, and he approaches it with a sense of humor. There's a cleverly researched chapter about goose behavior near airports, including an explanation of the avian term 'cluster-flocking.' Langewiesche relies on cockpit transcripts, interviews and aircraft systems data to flesh out the minutest details surrounding the brief flight. You'll learn what Sullenberger ate for breakfast that morning and what movie his co-pilot watched the night before. Then Langewiesche finds more interesting information to beef up the narrative. Partway through, the book turns into a fascinating biography of the Airbus itself and what it is doing to commercial flight . . . In Fly by Wire, we learn that commercial flying is no longer a brave and glamorous job and that the Airbus will ensure that the brave and glamorous no longer will be attracted to it. Sullenberger is, sadly, among the last of a dying breed."—Phaedra Hise, San Francisco Chronicle

"A venerated reporter, Langewiesche makes the case that the Miracle on the Hudson had two heroes—the pilot and his plane. While Langewiesche takes us through the dramatic event from all perspectives, he particularly focuses on how the genius advances in aviation and digital technology made that landing possible. Planes are now built to protect passengers from pilots, or at least the bad ones. Now geese, that's a different matter."—Sherryl Connelly, The Daily News

"By now, the story of U.S. Airways Flight 1549 is practically an American folktale: a miraculous emergency landing into the Hudson river, with Captain Chesley Sullenberger the hero in the cockpit. But journalist William Langewiesche takes a different view of the aborted Jan. 15 flight, which Sullenberger guided safely into the water after the Airbus 320 struck a flock of geese near LaGuardia Airport and lost all power. A Vanity Fair correspondent and former professional pilot, Langewiesche has written the most detailed account yet of the short flight, Fly by Wire: The Geese, the Glide, the Miracle on the Hudson."—Randy James, Time

"The subtitle of this engrossing book implies that it's about pilot Sully Sullenberger's emergency landing of US Airways flight 1549 in the Hudson River in January. But while that story is covered thoroughly by Langewiesche, who is a pilot himself, some of the best chapters, not to mention the title, deal with the day's unsung hero: the airplane. The Airbus A320, Langewiesche writes, is 'the most audacious civil airplane since the Wright brothers' Flyer,' with a control system built to resist and even thwart pilot error. Airbus was developed by innovative European engineers in the 1970s and '80s, including Bernard Ziegler, a charismatic Frenchman who provides Langewiesche with delightfully candid thoughts on pilots and the planes they fly. There also are chilling stories about crashes that did not have to occur and information about the geese that brought down Flight 1549 (animal lovers will be appalled) and the controller who struggled to help its pilots. Is this as good as Sullenberger's recent memoir? It's better. By far."—The Arizona Republic

"Heroics take a backseat to analysis in this account of the January 2009 Hudson River ditching by an airliner disabled by a collision with birds. Without diminishing the flying feat of pilot Chesley Sullenberger, Langewiesche accentuates the attributes of the plane he flew, the Airbus A320. The first fly-by-wire passenger airliner, so called because the plane's control surfaces move by electronic command, not by direct mechanical or hydraulic linkages, the A320 also had a stall-proof design feature that Langewiesche says contributed to the successful outcome of the accident. To explain these technological matters, which the adulation bestowed on Sullenberger perhaps obscured, Langewiesche took a field trip to France to interview the brains behind the fly-by-wire innovation. Amid his interview with Bernard Ziegler, Langewiesche declaims on several airliner accidents—one involving a loss of engine power similar to Sullenberger's flight—that illustrate the author's theme: pilots' attitudes toward, and aptitude with, the computerized cockpit. Ziegler's engineering philosophy, which is to make commercial flying idiot-proof, is contrasted with pilots' attitudes, since they tend to resent technology that trumps their expertise. Langewiesche synthesizes everything into a breathtaking narrative of the now-famous landing in the Hudson. In contrast with Sullenberger's memoir, Highest Duty (2009), this work's discernment of underlying issues contributes depth to the feel-good story."—Gilbert Taylor, Booklist

Reviews from Goodreads



Read an Excerpt

January 15, 3:25 p.m.
Chesley Sullenberger and Jeffrey Skiles met for the first time late in the afternoon of Monday, January 12, at the US Airways hub in Charlotte, North Carolina. Each had arrived from home, respectively...

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  • William Langewiesche

  • William Langewiesche is the author of six previous books: Cutting for Sign, Sahara Unveiled, Inside the Sky, American Ground, The Outlaw Sea, and, most recently, The Atomic Bazaar. He is the international editor for Vanity Fair.

  • William Langewiesche Copyright Andrew Brucker