Accounts of collective feel-good moments being notoriously slushy, it is a relief when William Langewiesche's Fly by Wire: The Geese, the Glide, the Miracle on the Hudson (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 193 pages, $24) opens not with Capt. Chesley Sullenberger successfully ditching his US Airways flight in the Hudson River last January, but in the midst of the National Transportation Safety Board inquest six months later—a hearing so stultifying that "two Asian men in identical gray suits fell asleep side by side with their heads back and their mouths hanging open." It is here that Langewiesche observes "Captain Sully" and his outstanding capacity for concentration: "After decades of enduring the insults of an airline career…he was determined to leverage this unexpected opportunity to his advantage."
That observation applies equally well to the author. An international reporter for Vanity Fair, Langewiesche is at his best in the wake of disaster. (Previous achievements include a chronicle of World Trade Center demolition efforts, American Ground. ) While Sullenberger's motivations in the aftermath of Flight 1549's collision with Canada geese were to ensure his family's financial security and gain leverage for the pilots' unions in their humiliating battles for higher pay, Langewiesche has set out to display his own mastery at white-knuckle reconstruction of chaotic events and, contra Sullenberger, prove that the Airbus A320 deserves as much credit as its helmsman for the improbable landing.
He succeeds. Fly by Wire is as engrossing a read as any piece of journalism from the past decade, navigated by Langewiesche's comprehensive research and dryly mordant outlook. (He describes the lessons of past water landings: "Another is that once certain people start to scream they cannot be stopped.") No one can match his ability to explain how things work, and here he structures a narrative around Airbus' fly-by-wire technology—the revolutionary engineering that electronically automates flight and overrules human errors, always moving just enough air across the wings to keep the plane from careening out of control. This system of "flight envelope protections," designed by a Frenchman named Bernard Ziegler, remains controversial—it supplants pilots, and it may be responsible for last summer's disappearance of an Air France jet over the Atlantic—but it allowed Sullenberger the freedom to improvise his descent. That design becomes as much a character in the story as the pilots: "Like it or not, Ziegler reached out across the years and cradled them all the way to the water." The book will provide no comfort for nervous flyers (it makes its case via a hypnotically terrifying litany of crashes, nearly all of them the fault of reckless pilots), but it provides a strange kind of reassurance: the knowledge that miracles, like all human accomplishments, result from a great deal of advance planning.
William Langewiesche reads at Powell's City of Books, 1005 W Burnside St., 228-0540. 7:30 pm Monday, Jan. 11. Free.