The heroics of commercial airline pilots aren’t often considered unless the situation is dire. The blockbuster “Sully,” a Clint Eastwood film detailing the Jan. 15, 2009 emergency landing in New York's Hudson River by US Airways Flight 1549, has shed light on what happens when the ordinary becomes the extraordinary.
Southport resident and retired pilot Gerry Hawes spent nearly 40 years in the cockpit for both Eastern and Northwest airlines and has recently published his first novel, “The Albatross.” The book details the life of commercial airline pilot Jack Rheinstrom and the protagonist’s near death experience and real life struggles. Without revealing too much, the book pivots on the tragic flight of United Flight 811 in 1989. The Boeing 747 was 16 minutes into its journey to Sydney, Australia when the cargo door suddenly popped open at 22,000 feet and nine passengers exited the flight and fell to their deaths.
In many ways, Hawes was born to fly. His father was one of the first employees of American Airlines in 1935 and Hawes grew up around airplanes.
“Like any little kid, you have these dreams,” he said. “I had models and pictures of airplanes. In the fifth grade I had my mother type up a letter to Cessna saying how much I liked the new 172 (airplane). So Cessna called the house to talk to me about possibly selling me one. My mom answered and said, ‘Well, I think he’s at recess now, he’s in the fifth grade’.”
The dream and fascination remained through adolescence. After graduating from Denison University, Hawes entered Air Force pilot training in 1966. He spent three years as a KC-135 pilot before flying as a forward air controller in Vietnam and spending time as an air liaison officer with the Republic of Korea. Hawes went on to become a C-141 instructor and squadron executive officer at McGuire Air Force Base and then spent 32 years as an airline pilot for Eastern and Northwest. He was later recalled to active duty for Operation Desert Storm. He is the recipient of the Air Medal, the Distinguished Flying Cross and the FAA’s Wright Brothers Master Pilot Award.
The world of commercial airlines was much different in the early 1970s before the industry was deregulated by President Jimmy Carter in 1978. Drawn to Eastern Airlines for the pilot friend philosophy, Hawes was living a dream, zigzagging across the country, and making friends along the way. Two years into his career, he was temporarily laid off.
“As they say, to be a real airline pilot you need to get hired, furloughed and divorced,” he said. “I haven’t been divorced yet but the other two have happened.”
As airlines continued to pinch pennies, the bureaucracy became harder and harder to deal with, said Hawes. On Sept. 11, 2001, he was on the phone when news came of the attacks in New York City. Despite being trained in a number of possible hostage situations in an airplane, Hawes was as shocked as everyone else.
“I never envisioned this scenario,” he said. “As a pilot we were unarmed and trained not to get into a shootout at the OK Corral. Take them wherever they want to go.”
The 2009 splash landing by Capt. Chester “Sully” Sullenberg — known as the Miracle on the Hudson — was an example of a well-trained pilot using both muscle memory and deeply ingrained psychological reflex. “I would have done the same thing,” said Hawes. “It’s called aviate, navigate and communicate. You have to have already anticipated a scenario but that landing is not something a pilot practices.”
While Sullenberger’s resolve was remarkable, he also benefited from a favorable location for the emergency. “He was lined up with this water runway of the entire length of the Hudson,” said Hawes. “He put the plane down between the New Jersey and New York ferry terminals. Everyone was off the wing in 24 minutes.”
The inspiration for “The Albatross” came after reading an article in the Wall Street Journal about one of the passengers who perished on Flight 811 in 1989. One of the passengers was 24-year-old Lee Campbell, a recent college graduate who was engaged to be married. The story of the Campbells’ subsequent struggle to know truth on board flight 811 affected Hawes deeply. The family would not accept an initial finding from three investigative agencies who blamed employee error and essentially launched their own investigation. Their dogged pursuit of the truth was rewarded after the U.S. Navy found a piece of the airplane; the door was blown apart due to a manufacturing defect, not human negligence. In the book, Hawes also draws upon his own life as a pilot to give the reader a behind the scenes look into the men and women who comprise the vast U.S. airline industry. Although a first-time author, he comes from a family of scribes. His sister, Elizabeth Hawes, was a staff writer for the New Yorker magazine and wrote the best-selling books “Entertaining” and “Weddings” for domestic doyenne Martha Stewart.
“The Albatross” doesn't shy away from tragedy and evokes the spirit of Lee Campbell whose random death reminds us of how fleeting life can be. A day before his death, Campbell had written a poem, which was found in his suitcase after the crash:
Waves hypnotizing me with green, beckoning fingers
A dream of space flight weightlessness
Air rushes past to fill a vacuum,
Progressive holes which must be filled
“It sends shivers up my spine to read those words,” said Hawes. “He seemed to know the end was near.”