Nervous fliers have to fear birds now, too?

January 22, 2009|By KEVIN COWHERD | KEVIN COWHERD,kevin.cowherd@baltsun.com

It's the feel-good story of the year.

Airliner loses power over New York City and crash-lands in the icy waters of the Hudson River.

All 155 passengers and crew survive.

The pilot - Chesley Burnett Sullenberger III, who fortunately is called "Sully" or we'd be here all day saying his name - is hailed as a hero.

New York's governor dubs it the "Miracle on the Hudson."

Yep, it's a great story. Wonderfully inspirational.

Except when nervous fliers like me heard the details of why the engines failed, our first reaction was: birds?

Birds caused US Airways Flight 1549 to ditch in the drink?

Great. Now there's something else to worry about besides shoe-bombers and the occasional psychotic passenger when we're hurtling through the skies in a narrow metal tube.

But that's what investigators officially announced the other day: Flight 1549 ran into a flock of geese shortly after takeoff.

And at least a couple were sucked into the plane's engines, at which point Sullenberger and the co-pilot reported the smell of "burning birds."

The aroma of cooking birds might be welcome when you're in the kitchen Thanksgiving morning.

But it's not so welcome when you're 3,000 feet over the Bronx and the plane's engines suddenly shut down.

Anyway, news of the "bird strike" on Flight 1549 rippled through the nervous-flier community.

Our first thought was: Aren't birds pretty much everywhere in the sky these days?

So shouldn't this issue have been addressed long before that jet was forced to splash down in the Hudson?

Shouldn't whoever designs these planes think about putting some kind of grille around the engines so birds don't get sucked in?

How hard can this be to do?

And the more pertinent question: Can we get it done before my next flight?

Actually, according to a story in Time magazine, an Airbus A320 like the one Sullenberger piloted has engines designed to handle damage from birds weighing up to 4 pounds.

OK, that doesn't sound bad. There's just one problem.

Canada geese, like the ones suspected of running into Flight 1549, weigh about 10 pounds.

So here's a radical idea. How about requiring that all new jet engines be able to withstand a run-in with a 10-pound goose, too?

That would make all of us nervous fliers breathe easier, I can tell you that.

Yes, if you're an airline, do us a favor from now on.

Don't tell us about your low fares and on-time record and all the cities you fly to.

Don't tell us about your luggage fees.

Tell us whether the plane will keep flying if we run into a flock of suicidal geese.

That's a much stronger selling point for people like me.

I bet Sullenberger was wondering why he didn't have engines that could ingest a goose and keep running as he floated a dead aircraft out of the sky and splashed down in a cold river.

But from all accounts, he performed magnificently under pressure.

If you're a nervous flier, you definitely want someone like Sullenberger in the cockpit.

First of all, he looks like a guy straight out of pilot central-casting, doesn't he?

He's got the silver hair. He's got the neatly trimmed, military-style mustache.

And he's calm under fire. According to his colleagues, the guy's blood pressure wouldn't spike if both wings snapped off in midflight.

Personally, I always try to get a look at the pilot when I'm boarding a flight.

And I can tell you this: I usually don't get too many pilots who look as impressive as Sullenberger.

The last time I flew, I had a pilot who looked like he was 22 years old.

He looked so young that I could imagine him going back into the cockpit and asking the co-pilot: "Dude, what happens when you press this button over here?"

Oh, it was a perfectly OK flight. There were no steep, banking, 30-seconds-over-Tokyo turns, no hard landing. But I couldn't help thinking the pilot was still wet behind the ears, which made for a nervous two hours.

Luckily, all this took place before we knew that killer geese were roaming the skies.

Now when I fly, I want a pilot who looks and reacts like "Sully" Sullenberger.

And a plane with engines that can shred a goose the size of a Chevy Cobalt and keep on humming.

But maybe that's asking too much nowadays.

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