The Symphony of Flight

“Only once we had started, did I notice that part of the orchestra was dark – the percussionist had misread his schedule and did not arrive!”

I met Kwamé Ryan by chance – I was alerted to the fact that he was a passenger on one of my flights, heading to London via Cape Town after conducting the KwaZulu Natal Philharmonic. Through third parties we had arranged to meet in Cape Town to go up Table Mountain and to lunch afterwards, while he had a few hours to kill between flights.

Kwamé is a renowned international conductor, who has worked with many of the major orchestras in Europe and the UK. He currently freelances all over the world, while heading up the Academy of Performing Arts at the University of Trinidad and Tobago. Here he works on educational and community development projects.

We hit it off immediately – him the unassuming music man with an interest in aviation (he did consider piloting once), and me the pilot with an interest in music. (Many years ago I was one of the few brave souls who started a commercial classical music station, but that’s another story).

Over a vegetarian lunch (his preference) we shared life stories and anecdotes, remarking on the similarities between the roles of conductor and captain.

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Maestro Ryan conducting the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra. (Pic: TSO).

The conductor has to know his craft and the music well, then he has to meet a diverse group of individuals and win their confidence. Once they trust you and your abilities, you now need to mold their separate skills into a well coordinated human machine. This human machine has to be controlled, but also cajoled into performing better than spec – not just playing the notes, but making extraordinary, beautiful music. Only once this is achieved do the bravos and encores follow.

And if something goes awry, you need to think on your feet and save the performance. Kwamé related the story of the percussionist who did not arrive for a performance of Cavalleria Rusticana. This he only realised once they had started – he then had to improvise, letting another player (I think it was in the horn section) crack the whips and ring the bells, while still playing his/her own parts! The whip cracks, exactly seven of them, also served as cues for the choir to enter – you can imagine the potential for some discordant disaster!

The airline captain’s role is much the same. You need to win the confidence of the crew, the engineers, the ground controllers, the load masters and dispatch (and the passengers). All the time keeping a close eye on all of the many players in this huge orchestra and picking up the false notes or someone playing behind the beat. Only once everyone is inspired to play their part perfectly, do we achieve a push-back on time, a smooth flight and an early arrival.

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Intense coordination and concentration required to arrive at this point, the finale.

Naturally, it does not always work out as planned. And now the captain has to keep calm, track the parts which can be improvised and which not, arrange and re-arrange, keep others’ frayed nerves calm and still conduct the orchestra of flight to please a very finicky audience – the passengers.

Once the flight is over, once the performance is done – it is gone, history. Now the next performance beckons – with all the associated challenges. No two flights are ever exactly the same, just as no two performances are ever the same.

And why do we do it? For the satisfaction of achieving something extraordinary, molding a team into a successful performance.

Then the encores and standing ovations (the compliments on a smooth flight, outstanding service and a brilliant landing), then these only serve to affirm that you have indeed attained what you set out to do – creating something truly beautiful.

(The featured image is from Le Figaro).

 

 

 

 

Sully the Movie – A Pilot’s Perspective

“So what did you think of the movie?”

I was immediately faced with that question as I walked out of the screening of Sully, Clint Eastwood’s film about the 2009 landing in the Hudson River, starring Tom Hanks as Captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger.

Well, here’s what I think:

Firstly, I thoroughly enjoyed the film for the technical accuracy of the flight and subsequent river landing with very realistic use of CGI. It had to be accurate as so much of the material has already been published. The transcripts of the CVR (Cockpit Voice Recorder)  were already published in Sullenberger’s 2009 book Highest Duty – My Search for What Really Matters, which also told his life story and related the events of the day in great detail.

These CVR recordings lead me to the one aspect I did not appreciate as much – the movie has the CVR played for the first time during the public hearing, while in fact, according to Sullenberger there were only six people present in the audio lab where they first listened to it. But this would not have suited Eastwood’s whole premise for the movie. He built the dramatic edge around the NTSB ruthlessly pursuing Sullenberger and Jeff Skiles, the First Officer (very ably played by Aaron Eckhart). In Eastwood’s mind the NTSB were the bad guys, out to get the good guys – the pilots – who were assumed guilty until proven not guilty.

It bears stating here that any accident investigation by nature is uncompromising. Nothing can simply be assumed and every detail has to be interrogated to arrive at a definitive answer. The objective is not to apportion blame, but to learn and make recommendations to avoid similar events in future.

Sullenberger himself was very clear about the conflict in his own mind – could they possibly have made it back to La Guardia or even Teterboro? Here his whole career of over forty years would be judged on 208 seconds and one decision. I could clearly identify with this self-doubt, something we as professional pilots know well. There is always the nagging worry that something could have been handled better, it is the perfectionist nature of our occupation.

Hanks captures the gravitas of Sullenberger in this situation perfectly. He has proved before that he can deliver empathetic portrayals of men in difficult situations (Apollo 13, Captain Phillips), balancing human frailty with steely resolve.

Sully is a great movie, which caters for a general movie audience who would simply enjoy a rollicking drama of good people conquering adversity. Yet it still satisfies those aviators, who have more than just a passing interest in the dramatic events of January 15th, 2009.

Hopefully the movie will also allow a glimpse into how seriously professional pilots take their occupation – Hanks’s Sullenberger provides the ideal example. His one decision on that day led to 155 souls surviving a dual engine failure and a subsequent forced water landing – pilots daily make hundreds of decisions with less dramatic impact, but which directly affects the lives of passengers worldwide.

Go and see the movie!