As news broke yesterday of U.S. Airways Flight 1549 making a water landing in the Hudson River in New York City, my mind immediately flashed back to an article I had read the day before, on Boing Boing, authored by guest blogger Steven Johnson, "For once, news about why we're safer than we used to be." In it, Johnson recalls the November 2001 crash of Flight 587 in the Belle Harbor neighborhood of Queens. None of the people on board Flight 587 survived the crash, and the incident carried the extra psychic weight of coming so close -- both temporally and physically -- to 9/11, but what followed was an unprecedented run of good news for commercial aviation:
That was seven years ago. I bring up this story now because American 587 was the last fatal crash on U.S. shores involving a full-size jetliner. That is an incredible run, and for some reason it is almost never talked about. Seven years of a perfect track record is more than just a statistical anomaly; we have clearly taken what has always been a safe form of transportation and made it into a staggeringly safe mode of transportation. In an age where we are bombarded by fear media at every turn -- from the household menaces of local nightly news ("Something in your kitchen may be killing your children -- tune in at eleven for more!") to the endless scaremongering about international terrorism, you'd think there would be an appetite for news about how ordinary life just got a lot safer. Yes, if it bleeds it leads and all, but still, if you look at the history of aviation accidents, seven years with no fatalities is much more unlikely (and thus newsworthy) than a crash or two each year.
Johnson goes on to note a recent USA Today article: "[MIT Professor Arnold] Barnett calculates that it's more likely for a young child to be elected president in his or her lifetime than to die on a single jet flight in the USA or in similar industrial nations in Europe, Canada or Japan."
Pilot Chesley Sullenberger will be rightly hailed as the guy who most directly kept the streak going. In addition to being an Air Force veteran, Sullenberger is an accident investigator and safety expert, and he works with the University of California at Berkeley's Center For Catastraophic Risk Management. A modest collection of Facebook fan groups has sprouted up in his behalf. Personally speaking, I've always heard the flight attendants' spiel on "water landings" to be a euphemism for "Yeah, we are going to all drown." Sullenberger has managed to completely change that thought process. I can't imagine how expensive it's going to be to fly on the planes he pilots!
That said, there are a lot of other people who collaborated to ensure that the "It's been X days since our last commercial aviation fatality" kept dialing upward: flight attendants, air traffic controllers, ferry boat operators, cops and firemen. And there's an important connection that binds them all, as Marcy Wheeler points out: "Just about every single one of these heros [sic] is a union member."