Miracle on the Hudson

February 10, 2009

The January 15, 2009, belly-landing on the Hudson River by a U.S. Airways plane bound for Charlotte, N.C., resulted in all 155 people aboard being rescued. The incident was promptly dubbed miraculous. In a next-day’s online   NBC New York article, headed “Miracle on the Hudson,” writer Michael Clancy said the event “could only be called a miracle.”

However, with the primary meaning of “supernatural occurrence,” the word miracle once again proves overworked and misleading. It appeals to the emotions rather than reason.

With such remarkable outcomes as the plane’s safe landing on the Hudson, people often credit God—a collective Imaginary Friend—with having intervened. Even if all but one passenger had perished, that single instance still might be labeled “miraculous,” as if all the other people were somehow deserving of calamity.

The fact is, both good luck and bad occur. It is selective use of the evidence to count certain favorable occurrences as miraculous. Doing so stems from the same superstitious impulse and selectivity that leads some to claim there is a “curse” on the Hope diamond or the Kennedy family (see Joe Nickell,   Real-Life X-Files , 2001, pp. 60–69).

The best evidence is that the U.S. Airways plane was brought down by engine failure—reportedly due to colliding with a flock of birds. The “miracle” was simply the combined result of proximity to the water, the reflexes of an experienced pilot, and other factors, including the plane’s buoyancy and the ready availability of rescue boats.

While some passengers prayed, a couple of level-headed persons took charge and “started yelling for everyone to calm down,” reported Clancy. Obviously, rationality prevailed, and prayers had nothing to do with the wonderful outcome.