Bookmarks Issue: 

The Geese, the Glide, and the "Miracle" on the Hudson

A-FlyByWireIn addition to serving as the international correspondent for Vanity Fair, William Langewiesche is a licensed commercial pilot. His last book, American Ground, covered the cleanup at Ground Zero following the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

The Topic: Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger was crowned a hero as the pilot who safely landed a jet in the Hudson River in early 2009 after its engines were disabled by a flock of geese. According to Langewiesche, the other less-celebrated heroes of this story are the plane Sullenberger was flying—the Airbus A320—and the engineers who designed it. Think of the A320 as having an autopilot that is always on, making constant adjustments to what the human pilot is doing. Airplanes have evolved—and Langewiesche fills in the details. Supplemented with anecdotes about previous airline crashes, disgruntled pilots, and the habits of Canada geese, Fly by Wire does not necessarily lessen Sully’s centrality to the Hudson story, but it certainly expands the cast of characters.
Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 208 pages. $24. ISBN: 9780374157180.

Seattle Times 4 of 5 Stars
"Probably it is the discipline of his magazine work that keeps [Langewiesche] from committing the sin of so many writers. They research a thing—Canada geese, airplane crashes or the National Transportation Safety Board—and fatten their manuscripts by pouring into them all they have learned. Langewiesche doesn’t do this. … The result is an account that has drama in it, history in it and ideas in it. It will have particular interest to pilots and engineers, but is written for everyone who rides in airliners and wonders what might happen if those powerful jet engines suddenly refused to work." Bruce Ramsey

New York Times 3.5 of 5 Stars
"[Fly by Wire] may sound a bit snarky—and this slim book, at its worst, is. Written quickly, it lacks some of the eloquence and steely control of Mr. Langewiesche’s earlier books. … Based on an article Mr. Langewiesche published in Vanity Fair in June, Fly by Wire is not just about Chesley Sullenberger, however. Mr. Langewiesche uses Flight 1549 as the pretext for a smart, confident, wide-ranging discussion of commercial aviation." Dwight Garner

NY Times Book Review 3.5 of 5 Stars
"As in American Ground, his 2002 account of the cleanup at the World Trade Center site, Langewiesche is less interested in human drama than in clinical analysis. Though this is a slender book, some readers may feel it could have been even shorter, had Langewiesche forgone such detailed descriptions of past air disasters, for instance. Still, the information here is fascinating." Clyde Haberman

San Francisco Chronicle 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Langewiesche gives us an insightful analysis of the changing world of commercial aviation. … [W]e learn that commercial flying is no longer a brave and glamorous job and that the Airbus will ensure that the brave and glamorous no longer will be attracted to it. Sullenberger is, sadly, among the last of a dying breed." Phaedra Hise

Time 3.5 of 5 Stars
"In the aftermath of the averted tragedy, Sully became a national hero, feted by all but a few stray critics carping over his inevitable book deal and talk-show victory lap. Langewiesche isn’t one of those—but he does intend to spread the praise around. … The book is not a takedown, but rather a reminder that opportunity, not valor, is perhaps the better part of heroism." Alex Altman

Critical Summary

Newspapers and magazines that ran articles on Fly by Wire seemed just as interested in reporting the conflict over this book—Sullenberger has publicly disagreed with many of Langewiesche’s conclusions—as they were in assessing whether it was a compelling work. Few who heard the Sullenberger’s calm cockpit demeanor during the crisis or caught his self-effacing appearances on television are interested in a book that undermines the man—but that’s not what happens here. Langewiesche’s work is balanced, informative, and efficient; reviewers particularly admired the author’s economy. Initially surprised that one could turn an incident that only lasted a few minutes into a whole book, by the end they were marveling that one could fit so much interesting information into just over 200 pages. Heroic brevity, indeed!