Sullenberger wasn’t the first

Two other pilots beat him to it

Occasionally, circumstances conspire to rob me of my writing time. This is a circumspect way to say I was fully occupied by a couple of time-consuming projects, now completed. Whenever this occurs, it provides me with a blessed break from watching the news for a week or three — a little vacation from all the gloom and misery that colors the world.

Such a break also provides me with the opportunity to address a topic apropos of nothing. And this one has been bugging me for over 10 years.

Remember Chesley Sullenberger? That’s Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger of “Miracle on the Hudson” fame?

Back in 2009, Sullenberger was captain of U.S. Airways Flight 1549, the Airbus A320* that ditched in the Hudson River after both engines were disabled by multiple bird strikes. In a feat of superlative airmanship, Sullenberger and his first officer, Jeffrey Skiles, managed to put the crippled aircraft down on the Hudson, while thousands of people in New York and New Jersey watched. All 155 passengers survived, most uninjured.

As a result of his actions, Sullenberger was toasted on every talk show in the country, landed a number of high-paying gigs, published a couple books and saw Tom Hanks play his role in “Sully: Miracle on the Hudson,” the 2016 motion picture directed by Clint Eastwood.

All well and good. Sullenberger deserved his accolades — the event truly was a miracle, helped along by very skilled airmanship.

But here’s where I have a little problem: Sullenberger wasn’t the first guy to bring an engineless airliner down in an impossible low-altitude, no-power situation, managing to save his passengers from certain death. Sullenberger was actually the third pilot to do it.**

Perhaps it’s just me but it seems like maybe all the hoopla should go to the first miracle flyer, not the third. It strikes me like having a quiet civil ceremony for your first marriage but a lavish gala for your third.

More on the problem in a minute.

On Jan. 16, 2002, Garuda Indonesia Flight 421 departed Ampenan with veteran pilots Capt. Abdul Rozaq and F.O. Harry Gunawan in the cockpit. The Boeing 737-300* encountered severe thunderstorms on final approach to Yogyakarta, resulting in dual engine flameout. With only moments to act, Rozaq maneuvered his gliding airliner between two bridges situated less than 1,500 meters apart on the Bengawan Solo River. In only a meter of water, Rozaq ditched the crippled aircraft, resulting in one fatality when the empennage crumpled and killed a flight attendant. Several passengers suffered injuries but many were unscathed.

In the shallow river and short span between bridges, Rozaq’s ditching options were far less desirable than Sullenberger’s. And Rozaq’s airmanship was incredible.

Before that, there was the miracle on the levee.

On May 24, 1988, Capt. Carlos Dardano and F.O. Dionisio Lopez were operating TACA Flight 110 from Belize City to New Orleans. When Dardano’s new Boeing 737-300* encountered severe thunderstorms on its final approach to New Orleans, both engines flamed out on descent. The crew managed to relight both engines but neither engine produced power. Intending to ditch in a nearby river, at the last moment Dardano spotted a dirt levee, where he successfully landed the powerless aircraft.

It’s worth noting that some years earlier, Dardano had lost an eye when he was shot in the face as his light charter airplane was caught on the ground in an El Salvador civil war firefight. Gravely wounded, Dardano manged to fly his passengers out to safety.

Back to the levee, Dardano’s 737 suffered only minor hail damage with the exception of its destroyed engines. Most passengers were unhurt with only a few suffering minor injuries during evacuation. The levee sat adjacent to NASA’s Michoud Assembly Facility, which proved useful in the subsequent engine replacement after which the airplane was flown off the levee, repaired and returned to service.

I need to point out that Dardano not only saved his passengers, but also saved his aircraft with this unprecedented emergency landing on a dirt levee. And he did it all with no depth perception due to the previous loss of his eye. That’s breathtaking airmanship.

If you ask me, Dardano’s story is way more dramatic and interesting than dull Sullenberger’s.

But there’s that pesky detail: The Garuda and TACA crews are not white.

Now, hold on — I am not suggesting some intentional white conspiracy was put in place to deny the Latino and Asian aircrews who preceded Sullenberger their due.

I regularly address race-related topics yet I want to acknowledge that many white people are feeling weary of a seeming constant barrage of anti-white sentiment coming from all corners. Even as one who believes fervently that we need to continue racial reckoning and reconciliation — that we must face some unpleasant and ugly truths about our history — I can also feel the burden of what seems like constant condemnation. Sometimes it’s as if half the world believes no white person ever did anything good in the entire history of the world.

As I mention race in this column, I wish to make it clear that I am not suggesting an intentional white conspiracy caused Sullenberger’s beatification. Rather, it may just be media cluelessness and box office greed that deemed a white airman worthy of elevation and movie-hero status while the airmen of color who equaled or exceeded — and preceded — Sullenberger’s heroism earned little more than passing mentions.

Whatever the case, I don’t like it. As remarkable as Sullenberger’s airmanship was, Carlos Dardano and Abdul Rozaq beat him to it. And as I already said, Dardano’s dramatic story beats Sullenberger’s by far, in my opinion.

When you hear grumbling about media and entertainment’s insensitivity to people of color, this sort of preference is part of that issue.

Some clueless white people will pooh-pooh this as much ado about nothing.

But that’s exactly the problem.

And I will thank them in advance for helping underscore my point.


*EDITORIAL NOTE: The Boeing 737 and the Airbus A320 are roughly equivalent aircraft.

**EDITORIAL NOTE: I do not count the excellent airmanship of Capt. Bob Pearson and F.O. Maurice Quintal when they landed the “Gimli Glider” on July 22, 1983. The new Boeing 767 was in service as Air Canada Flight 143 when it ran out of fuel hundreds of miles from its destination. Although Pearson and Quintal demonstrated superb flying skills getting their crippled aircraft on the ground, they were partly to blame for failing to ensure their aircraft was properly fueled before departure. Additionally, Pearson and Quintal had the benefit of high altitude when their engines flamed out — the U.S. Airways, TACA and Garuda Indonesia flights were all at very low altitude when they lost power.

Photo © Greg L via Wikimedia Commons, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.

One Reply to “Sullenberger wasn’t the first”

  1. It is long past the time when the merits of a situation should not even consider the color of anyone’s skin.

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