My dim and distant understanding is that disgraced avatar of evil Bernie Madoff committed the heinous crime of bilking lots of stupid, greedy people out of negligible portions of their disposable incomes – a swindler, and old-fashioned card-sharp assuring his victims that the pea was, indeed, under the third cup.

If this is the case, then his crimes continue in the latest issue of Vanity Fair, where Mark Seal’s headline-grabbing article about the downfall of this Lil’ Satan will be the only reason most people buy the issue in the first place and the only thing they read in it. That’s a first-class swindle right there, because the Seals article, though impeccably researched, is a snoozer (since Madoff’s crimes almost by definition hurt only the willing, they lack any semblance of pathos and therefore any semblance of interest). Likewise the cover article about Jessica Simpson, which did more to shake my faith in that actress’ native canniness than anything I’ve ever read. No, the real treat of the issue comes from an extremely reliable source: William Langewiesche writing about all things concerning aviation. This is an absolutely scintillating body of specialized work Lang is amassing, and in this issue he looks at the latest piece of aviation history to splash, quite literally, across the headlines: the “Miracle on the Hudson” water-landing of US Airways Flight 1549 last January.

The “Miracle on the Hudson” had everything a picture-perfect drama needs, except a villain (would it have killed one of the passengers to take a swing at one of the crew?) – it sure as Hell had a hero: Captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger, who took control of the plane immediately after it swallowed some fat Canadian geese the wrong way and lost its engines.

In an instant, Sullenberger had no power – and almost no options, since the two airports that might have been within range of his craft were also deeply embedded in cities, thereby giving no margin for error whatsoever. Since the entire length of this drama extends only a few minutes, mighty fast thinking was in order, and as usual, Lang is superb at riveting his readers’ attention:

Sullenberger could see La Guardia to the left side. Like all pilots he was experienced at visually projecting flight paths, even around corners, and particularly in descents. It was not obvious that if he turned directly toward the airport he would undershoot the runway.

But the point here isn’t technical range, it’s possible consequences, as Lang makes clear:

Even if it had been shown in simulation that Sullenberger could in theory have glided to La Guardia, in practice the approach would have been a very close thing, a crapshoot in a place were undershooting the runway by 20 feet would be like undershooting it by a mile. Once you committed toward La Guardia, you either had luck on your side or you died.

Lang has a broad range of excellent writer talents, but his best is the ability to step back a bit from the story he’s narrating and comment on the bigger picture. He does this regularly in every piece, and it has the odd double effect of both allowing the reader a chance to breathe and of ratcheting up the tension of the narrative. At this point he pauses to remind his readers of the stark realities of flying planes, and I can just picture pilots all across the country nodding quietly as they read:

At some point as you climb down from the most desirable destinations, you stop thinking about hotels, stop thinking much even about the airplane, and shift your focus to survival. At that point life becomes very simple. The first rule is to avoid losing control. The second is to avoid hitting brick walls. The third and final rule is to keep “flying” the airplane even as it is sliding and disintegrating around you in the water or on the ground. You fly it until it stops, and then you evacuate.

And in addition to providing us with a gripping narrative of what happened that day in January, Lang also fills in the background on the incident’s unsung hero: the Airbus A320 Captain Sullenberger was piloting that day. In an intentionally-chosen discordant note to the symphony of praise being played for Sullenberger (whom he nevertheless praises), Lang comments that in this case as in so many cases, the worker is only as good as his tools:

Suffice it to say that if Sullenberger had done nothing after the loss of thrust the airplane would have smoothly slowed down until reaching a certain angle with the airflow, at which point it would have lowered its nose to keep the wings from stalling, and would have done this even if for some reason Sullenberger had resisted. Of course, Sullenberger did no such thing.

It’s a splendid article, as all Langewiesche’s are – I eagerly look forward to the next collection he publishes of these superb aviation pieces (his first one, Inside the Sky, is very much worth hunting down). I think it’s obvious that air travel will no longer be possible in at most a hundred years, after which its whole era will at least have its Melville in this great writer.

  • Sam

    I assume that when you’ve referred to Jessica Simpson as ‘canny’ you weren’t talking about her mental prowess.

  • Locke Peterseim

    Okay, I’ll bite… despite my standing as one of the longest of the long-time SteveWatchers, I’m not sure what you meant by “I think it’s obvious that air travel will no longer be possible in at most a hundred years…”

    I’ll take a wild stab and say, hmmm… um… air pollution? no, no… uh, skies full of super-geese? the depletion of the planet’s oil supply?

    No, wait, I know! Roasting tobacco addicts!!

  • steve

    I’m opting for #2! But you never know …

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