Book Review by Ed Potkai

No American can read the subtitle of this book and not know what the subject matter is.  This book is an expansion of an article entitled Anatomy of a Miracle which appeared in the periodical Vanity Fair.  The article can be read online at Vanity Fair.

This books breaks down into three essential parts.  Obviously, there is a complete telling in meticulous detail of the flight of US Airways 1549 on January 15, 2009.  All of the essential dialogue between the Airbus A320 and the air controllers is recounted.  In what seems a rare story these days, a number of professionals performed their jobs to the highest standards.  The story is fascinating and heartening.

Another component of the book recounts other incidents of civilian air travel.  Most are flights where engines quit, what the pilots did, and what the outcomes were.  The longest story relates the 1995 flight of an American Airlines 757 where the pilots did not trust their airplane.  They were convinced that they were right and the aircraft was wrong.  They realized their error about 500 feet from the mountain that killed them.  These incidents are told in a suspenseful manner that keeps the reader riveted.

It is the third element that air enthusiasts will find most enlightening.   In this section Langewiesche gives a good primer of the technicalities of flight.  His language is interesting and easy to understand.  The author obviously spent a lot of time with Bernard Ziegler, the controversial Frenchman who is essentially the father of Airbus’s fly-by-wire system.  Ziegler is despised by pilots because he enabled the two “man” cockpit, eliminating thousands of jobs formerly held by the third pilot.  Ziegler holds low esteem for the “average” pilot (while acknowledging that there are many highly skilled pilots).  He has much more faith in his airplanes’ computers and the flight parameters he has loaded into them.  This contrasts with the Boeing system which gives highly skilled pilots more freedom to maneuver.  And less skilled pilots more freedom to crash.  Ziegler’s case would be more convincing without the story of an Air France senior pilot who believed his aircraft couldn’t crash until the moment that he proved it could.

This book does not argue against the role of Captain Sullenberger’s skill in the happy outcome of the accident.  But it makes its case that the Airbus fly-by-wire system helped him.

At 193 pages, Fly by Wire is an easy and enjoyable read.  The reader experiences emotional highs and lows before its very real happy ending.




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