The story of last week’s “miracle on the Hudson” is almost unbelievable. The sudden loss of all power in both jet engines within minutes of takeoff from New York’s LaGuardia Airport left pilot Chelsey Sullenberger III (Sully) with few options, none of them particularly promising. His Airbus A320 was loaded with 150 passengers, three flight attendants, and his co-pilot: one hundred fifty-five souls, all in his hands.
His air traffic controllers suggested returning to LaGuardia, but Sully knew he’d never make it. His plane was “too low, too slow” and there were “too many buildings, too populated an area.” A nearby small craft airport, Teterboro, in New Jersey, presented the same problems.
Only one solution presented itself. Sully would have to attempt a water landing in the Hudson River.
Now, as the pilot himself later stated, and as other pilots would affirm, this kind of emergency is what they train for – sort of. Simulators can provide a similar circumstance, but no pilot actually trains for a water landing by actually landing a large jet in the water, and certainly not in a waterway that is bordered by the largest city in the country.
But this pilot navigated a perfect landing, right in the Hudson River, which in another hour would have been busy with marine traffic as commuters made their way home from the work day. End of story? Not hardly, for this day just happened to be the coldest of the winter, with air temperatures in the single digits and the water a frigid 36 degrees.
So, just to count the number of minor miracles that added up to an aeronautical milestone, we had a plane that could easily have crash landed in the middle of a major metropolitan area or crashed in a ball of fire into the river or crashed into a sea vessel that got in its way. None of those disasters occurred.
Instead, Sully brought the plane down into the water with a picture-perfect landing. The next miracle was that the craft didn’t sink immediately. Indeed, it stayed afloat, as if it had landed on its own life raft.
And, somehow, the passengers managed to maintain their cool, enough that everyone got off the plane and onto the wings or into the few life rafts that were quickly unloaded and floated. How all of this happened in the face of what must have been a combination of shock and panic for all on board is something only those involved will ever know, but it did.
Still, the likelihood would have been that some of the passengers would die of hypothermia. Just a few minutes of exposure in water that cold can result in death, and several passengers had fallen into the river on evacuating the cabin.
But, all were rescued, thanks in large part to the fact that those same commuter vessels that were going to transport all those workers in less than an hour were available to become rescue vessels. In less than three minutes a dozen had surrounded the plane and were taking on passengers.
In the end, no one died, and no one suffered severe injuries beyond the mild hypothermia suffered by a small number and the leg laceration suffered by a flight attendant.
Flash forward less than a week to the other miracle, albeit this one was not of the life-saving variety. Rather, on Washington’s Capitol Mall, over a million Americans (and more than a few non-Americans as well) gathered to witness the inauguration of America’s first African-American president.
What makes Barack Obama’s inauguration a miracle are the many obstacles he had to overcome to arrive at this point in his life. Only four years earlier, he was being sworn into the Senate for his first term, having just been elected the junior senator from Illinois, where he had been a three-term state senator.
His thin political resumé hardly suggested a presidential run, but a stirring keynote address at the 2004 Democratic National Convention had given him a bit of national exposure, and with only two years as a U.S. Senator, he had announced his candidacy for the presidential nomination in February of 2007.
At the time, it will be recalled, the field of contenders was crowded (nine at one point), and it was dominated by a power-house woman who was the presumed nominee just because of her name.
Hillary Clinton proved to be a formidable opponent, but Obama beat her, despite a campaign that included a kitchen sink full of charges, some of which tacitly played the “race card” (by suggesting a Muslim connection, emphasizing his middle name – Hussein).
Those same charges were plied during the fall campaign by the Republicans on behalf of John McCain. McCain, the Viet Nam war hero, had chosen an unknown for his VP, but Sarah Palin immediately became a unifying force for the ticket, bringing the religious right back into the fold. As September began, the polls had tightened to a veritable dead heat (with a couple even showing McCain/Palin ahead).
And then another piece of the miracle fell into place. The economy crashed. And it crashed in such a big way that everyone (i.e. the voters) suddenly got very scared. Visions of four more years of incompetent presidential leadership (following the debacle in Iraq, the Katrina disaster, and allowing the economy to get to this state) suddenly made voters look at the race differently.
McCain seemed old, unsure of himself, while Obama was cool, confident, the kind of person who could lead a nation through a crisis. Never mind his slim resumé; he seemed smart, competent, and he had that vision thing. He stayed away from specifics, and talked constantly about change, which was just what the electorate wanted to hear.
And so, this week, the nation collectively rejoiced the inauguration of its first black president, a guy with the odd sounding name of Barack Hussein Obama, whom a sizable block of voters still believe is a Muslim.
It isn’t the kind of dramatic miracle that saves 155 lives, but it may well be the kind that saves a nation’s soul.