Lessons From ’82 Disaster Aided Hudson River Crash Pilots

The deadly 1982 crash of an Air Florida plane into a Washington, D.C., bridge has changed the way pilots perform their jobs.

The emergency water landing by the pilots of the US Airways plane has been hailed as “masterful.” After making a mayday call, they made sure the landing gear was stowed and the air conditioning was turned off—the cabin pressure must match the pressure outside the plane. Furthermore, “In the seconds before impact, a pilot must try to ensure the wings are level—a feat clearly achieved by Captain Sullenberger, says David Learmount, operations and safety editor of Flight International magazine,” according to the BBC.

Perhaps just as important as his landing abilities were Sullenberger’s skills in crisis situations. The Associated Press reports that the commercial aircraft pilot and former fighter pilot is also president of a safety consulting firm called Safety Reliability Methods. He has also investigated aviation accidents for the National Transportation Safety Board. According to AP, “He had been studying the psychology of keeping airline crews functioning even in the face of crisis.”

One of the accidents that Sullenberg surely studied was the fatal Air Florida flight of 1982.

On Jan. 13, 1982, an Air Florida jetliner took off from Washington National Airport under snowy conditions and crashed into the city’s 14th Street bridge soon after ascending into the air. Seventy-eight people died in the disaster, which has essentially changed the way pilots and copilots go about their jobs.

“God, look at that thing,” copilot Roger Alan Pettit told the plane’s captain, Larry Wheaton, during takeoff, referring to either the flight instruments or the throttle position. “That doesn’t seem right, does it?” The pilot chose to ignore Pettit’s concerns and the results were tragic, according to a January 2007 article from The Washington Post.

According to AirDisaster.com, “By failing to activate the engine anti-ice, the large amounts of snow and ice that were sucked into the engines during reverse thrust use was allowed to remain there, unchallenged.”

The Air Florida crash was not only blamed on the failure to properly de-ice the plane, but on the inability of the pilots to act on the problem.

The deadly crash placed the “cowboy culture” of the aviation industry under the microscope. At the time, pilots “did not need advice, and copilots and other crew members often were afraid to assert themselves,” the Post wrote. But after the crash, the culture began to change as pilots were taught to communicate better with one another and learn a system called Crew Resource Management.


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