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'Miracle' plane crash was no miracle

Should we feed the geese?

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Comment Yesterday afternoon, just as I was walking to pick up my kids from school in Northern Manhattan, if I had looked up just about the time I was entering the building, I would have seen an A320 jet flying US Airways colors. I would have seen it approaching the George Washington Bridge a little bit too low, perhaps with some smoke billowing out of one or two of its engines, perhaps smelling of cooked goose.

The plane did not break up on impact somewhere in New York or New Jersey. After picking up the kids, I turned on my internet TV feed to see a jet floating on the water, surrounded by ferryboats and tugboats, as it drifted down the Hudson River following a remarkable, some say miraculous, landing. On such a cold day - it was a windy 20 degrees Fahrenheit, and the water was around 35 degrees when the plane ditched into the Hudson - the fact that no one died is amazing.

But still, this was no miracle - although New York and the rest of the country, and even the world, could use a little good news these days. This was good training, good engineering, and a little luck put into motion after a catastrophic loss of both engines, presumably due to the geese that live in Northern Manhattan and the Bronx where the jet - en route from La Guardia airport in Queens to Charlotte, North Carolina - passed over after takeoff.

I live right under the takeoff and landing patterns of La Guardia. Sometimes, the planes are so low, we joke that we can see the 5-o'clock shadow on the cheeks of the co-pilot and smell the Scotch on the breath of the pilot. Seeing the aircraft lined up in the string of pearls on a Sunday night - or blasting out in large numbers on Friday afternoons - is comforting. People in my neighborhood, Inwood, on the upper tip of Manhattan and surrounded by the Bronx (a bit like a mugging victim, really), learned how comforting the planes are when they stopped in September 2001.

I am certainly glad that pilot Chesley Sullenberger was at the helm. Like so many pilots with American airlines, he's an ex-fighter pilot. He's also a consultant in aircraft and airline safety and the former safety chairman for the Airline Pilots Association. And, perhaps most importantly, he's a glider pilot in his private life.

The fact that he was an expert pilot with gliding skills was key, as was having a great co-pilot, Jeff Skiles (a 23-year US Airways veteran) and a fast-acting flight attendant crew. (You have to exit one passenger per second, and in the case of the one passenger on Flight 1549 who refused to leave without her luggage, you have to grab them and push them out the door).

All of these people and their training saved lives. All of them. Hats off to Airbus for making a plane that seals itself up to float - that was intentional - and to the ferryboat and tugboat captains that didn't waste a second getting people out of the water. (Thank heavens it was approaching rush hour in midtown, where the plane came down).

All of this meant that the parents of the one passenger who turned on his cell phone so his GPS could be used to locate his body, instead got a relieving phone call from their son on that very same phone.

I may not feed the geese here in Inwood anymore. Then again, if we feed them enough, they can't get into the air. It is hard to settle on the right strategy. ®

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