This, my friends, is the meaning of excellence:

Planes can float, but the US Airways Airbus A-320 that crashed into the Hudson River Thursday had a better chance than most.

That’s because it was equipped with a special device unique to Airbus planes that increased the likelihood it would stay on top of the water.

The device, called a "ditching switch," effectively seals the plane by closing valves and ventilation ports, a spokesman for the airline said.

Industry experts said the ditching switch is rarely invoked, as "it’s not as if anyone expects to ditch these planes," said Robert W. Mann, who owns a Port Washington-based aviation consulting company.

Such a device makes a difference to pilots with backgrounds and training like this:

You may have heard that in addition to being a demonstrably impressive pilot, Capt. Chesley Sullenberger, the man piloting the plane yesterday, has a resume that makes him a legitimate air safety expert. (Talk about good luck matching the bad luck of a double bird strike!) He even played some part in developing the Crew Resource Management training for his airline that most experts say has played a real part in the improvement in commercial air safety over the last decade and one half. And he’s worked a number of NTSB crash investigations. (CRM, in very broad terms, is a leadership and collaboration training program that helps pilots and co-pilots make the right decisions in the seconds or minutes that make the difference between close calls and catastrophes.)

So that they can make critical decisions like this:

1 – Many ditchings are more last minute than this one, and consequently much rougher. Sullenburger had the presence of mind to plan to ditch early, as soon as he realized that making it to Teterboro would be a stretch (remember that you only get one chance to make a "dead stick" landing, and Teterboro is surrounded by buildings). This early decision was HUGE.

2 – The Hudson, yesterday at 4:00 PM, was about as good a ditching spot as you could get (except for being cold). It was flat calm, and it’s long, wide, and straight, which makes it much easier to bring the plane down gently, which is the only way to have a chance at not tearing the plane apart on impact (the reason that smaller planes ditch successfully more often is that they fly much slower – the A320 is about to stall when the plane I fly is approaching its top speed).

Think about that for a moment: the pilot deliberately chose to land on the water, the exact sort of calculated risk that is made or lost based on training, experience, and judgment, and which must be informed by such crucial details as, "does this plane have a ditching switch?"


3 – As you know, it’s also surrounded by docks and rich with rescue craft and ferries, and their prompt arrival at the crash site was also essential to saving everyone.

The last part is important. All of Airbus’ and Shellenberger’s work could have been for naught but for the prompt assistance from the flight attendants, air traffic controllers, ferry pilots, cops and firefighters — all of whom are unionized, unions which provide safety training and lobby for better training and equipment — to get them out of the water as quickly and safely as possible.

A model for all of us to follow.