Douglas L Perry, The Author blog

January 24, 2009

The Amazing Captain Sully

Filed under: Books,Thoughts — douglaslperry @ 10:22 pm
Tags: , , , , ,

Captain Sully is an amazing pilot. It sounds so trivial in simple words like that, but what he did was nothing short of a death defying stunt greater than anything you ‘d see at the circus. 

Flying an airliner is not hard. Lots of people do it everyday and do it well. It does require skills that most people do not inately posess, but they can learn it. How well they execute those skills and how safe of a pilot they become is a different issue. And that’s where Sully excelled. His judgement in the face of an impossible situation was exactly what was needed to save the lives of all the passengers. 

I am not an expert in flying the heavies, as large airliners are called, I am a small plane pilot. But a lot of the same principles that we are taught in the small ones directly transfers to the larger ones. It’s just that the consequences of pilot action or inaction are magnified a hundred fold. 

For instance stalling speed. This is the minimum speed that the plane must travel through the air to keep the plane flying. Travel below this and the wings no longer develop lift, and the airplane drops from the sky, just like in the movies. 

Let’s talk landing speed. This is the speed that the plane touches down on the runway. In the case of landing at an airport, the usual rule of thumb is that you maintain a cushion of about 30 percent over the stalling speed. However a water landing is something quite different. The landing speed in water has to be as slow as physically possible. 

Airplane hulls are not meant to withstand the stresses of traveling through water, that’s what boat hulls are for. If you compare the strength and thickness of a boat hull you will find that they are incredibly strong. Boat hulls are inches thick and meant to withstand the stresses that moving through water entails. Airplane skins on the other hand are thinner than most of the coins in your pocket. 

That means that if you are going to use them to travel through water, you have to do it very carefully. You have to put as little stress as possible on the hull. Otherwise you will tear it apart. A hole in the skin would cause so much drag that the plane would literally be ripped into pieces. 

So as long as you keep your speed up and land as slow as possible, life is good, right? Not so fast. 

Sully also had to worry about one other factor. A plane that large has a tremendous amount of momentum and takes a long time to stop. That means a huge runway, or in his case, a long stretch of water.

Sully had to balance all three of these conflicting goals and what a job he did. He had to make sure he flew fast enough that the plane didn’t stall. He had to fly slow enough to touchdown in the water and not rip the plane apart. He had to pick the perfect place to land in the water so that he had enough space to be able to stop. The closest analogy I can come up with is riding a unicycle on a tightwire with the wind blowing you sideways. Given enough time to practice it can be done, but Sully did it the first time. 

You see a double engine out landing is not something that pilots get to practice. It’s just too dangerous. 

One of the reasons that I wanted to discuss this is that one of the possible scenarios in my upcoming book (this week I hope), is that a pilot is worried about crashing into the sea. It’s one of the elements used to build tension. However the scenario in my book is quite different from what Sully did, it’s much worse. 

You see my pilot is not up front at the controls, he is a passenger. The airplane is flying on autopilot, and they are out over the middle of the Pacific Ocean. So there is no Sully at the controls to make the miracle landing. My pilot has to figure it how to get into the cockpit and decide how to solve the problem himself.

Don’t think about that the next time you fly. It is the safest way to travel.


  1. I had no idea about all that–it’s completely stunning. Wow.

    Comment by mousewords — January 25, 2009 @ 10:50 am

  2. Very good post. I’m working on getting my pilot’s license and i agree. Everything you say is true. What Sully performed was really an amazing feat. It takes more than a good pilot to pull something like that off. Of course Sully is no ordinary pilot. He has years of experience, and just happened to have graduated top of his class at the Air Force academy. Not an easy task either.

    Hey in case your interested, I run a book review site at

    Comment by Morx — January 28, 2009 @ 6:57 pm

  3. Hey Morx,

    Your site looks awesome. I would love to have you review my book. What do I need to do?

    — Doug P.

    Comment by douglaslperry — January 28, 2009 @ 11:18 pm

  4. Hey Doug,

    Just send me a copy. If I like it I’ll review it and put it up.

    Comment by Morx — January 28, 2009 @ 11:46 pm

  5. Morx,

    Sounds good. I am anxiously awaiting my first shipment to come in.

    Comment by douglaslperry — January 29, 2009 @ 12:27 am

  6. Nice explanation Doug. I have flown large aircraft and the one thing that really helped Sulley was his experience as a glider pilot. Energy management training doesn’t come any better.

    Comment by Rob Mark — February 6, 2009 @ 12:03 am

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