Not everything is a metaphor. I believe it was Sisyphus who said that, but he was pretty tired at the time. Still, many shared a sense of something being communicated by the event of that U.S. Air A320 water landing last week. They all got out. The captain did a great job. It could have been horrible and it wasn’t. They all got out. What does it mean?
When a potentially horrible thing turns out fine, we often tend to see something in the hazy light just behind the event. Let’s not beat around the bush, or in this case the water-logged hull of Flight 1549: Many will believe there was some kind of intervention. One hundred fifty-five passengers and the crew escaped safely, with most having nothing more than wet socks to complain about. Some kind of hand must have passed over that plane. They were able to stand on the wings and wait for help, as they would for a cab or a bus. Miracle, or did we have something to do with it?
When things go badly, we’re confused. Bad things happen to good people: Why? And right now, we’re all feeling exposed to being pulled in and battered by the current tsunami of bad news. The next bank to go may be the one cradling our savings. The next big trading scam might be that guy that we had so much faith in. What if the bailouts are just that; a panic move without design? Does it help us with our fears just a little to know that an airliner can ditch in water and the passengers will still be downing beers on Super Bowl Sunday?
I may not have the more existential message delivered by Flight 1549 in the Hudson River, but I was fascinated by the fact that the crash and the ensuing safe outcome was one part chaos, and one part planning and engineering. Chaos was the birds, nature… literally flying into the engines and gumming them up. Planning included the skilled landing by the pilot, and a crew that helped the passengers with an orderly exit exactly like those described during the pre-flight safety spiels we all ignore. Technology included a system on the A320 that allows for intake valves to be closed in a “ditching” scenario and thus creates more buoyancy for the downed plane.
So chaos had its way with the plane, then released its grip as humankind’s talent for engineering its way out of chaos worked…. with astounding and heartening results. If it’s true that we’re constantly bullying nature and maybe birds downing man’s flying machines is some kind of payback, then I’d have to counter with the observation that because humans were churning the waters of the Hudson with their fuel-guzzling ferries there was safe transport on the spot when the plane’s passengers needed it. New York may be an overcrowded anthill of modern civilization, but ants were there in minutes to help the rescue.
I imagine the brave crew of the Apollo 13 spacecraft had a few moments where they wondered aloud if man was really meant to explore outer space. As we sit frozen in freeway gridlock, we review all the ways civilization has erred in its pursuit of personal transportation. As the earth warms and weather freaks out, we realize we should have reached deeper into our creativity for alternative fuel sources way back when we knew this was coming. But this is chaos we brought on ourselves, just as we now humbly realize the limitations of making home loans to people without resources. Or that war is a catastrophic waste of everything. We’ve also built systems that work, only to abandon them. Public schools are a righteous idea that too many have neglected like a stepchild. Modern medicine is capable of miracles, but we don’t give everyone access to those miracles.
Yeah, we need to do something about those birds near the airports; hopefully something fair to the birds. But we also need to realize that many of our systems, the ones we came up with as a means of containing chaos, often function properly. Stuff works, even in times of great doubt about the sensibility of our whole confounding deal with systems and machineries. Remember Y2K? Barely. You can point out that the pilot of the U.S. Air plane was good, and that might have been the whole picture right there. But that man was trained by a system, and he had a sense of handling a machine that is but one complex product of our appetite for progress.
More unpredictable and unreliable is our dedication to the well-being of the collective whole. Air bags save lives in car crashes, but we’re decades late in demanding they be standard equipment. Security at airports keeps bombers from getting on board, yet we whine about the extra time spent taking our shoes on and off. Our money shouldn’t just grow, it should super-grow! Then we’re left holding the bag, and the bag is empty. That’s scary, and our captains are even now telling us to “Prepare for impact.” But if we can keep our heads like everyone on that U.S. Air flight did, we might find our systems winning more victories over chaos. Those systems are not infallible and they’re certainly not divine, but they often represent our best efforts. Faith in them means faith in ourselves, and possibly more happy landings.