What Is the Co-Pilot, Chopped Pâté?

"Hero of the Hudson" this, "Pilot Saved Them All" that. Did everyone around here forget the co-pilot usually has the harder job in a crash-landing?

I mean, seriously: How many life vests does a First Officer have to fetch to get co-hero status in this town? How many times have you heard of Flight 1549's First Officer, Jeffrey Skiles, in coverage of the US Airways jet's heroic, fatality-free landing in the Hudson? You'd almost think Chesley Sullenberger was flying alone.

According to Philip Greenspun, MIT Web pioneer turned flight instructor, the co-pilot's job is usually the more demanding of the two in a crash scenario:

One of the two pilots would have been handling the stick and rudder while the other pilot worked the radio, flaps, slats, landing gear, pressurization controls (very critical in this case, since a jetliner ditching usually involves dumping the cabin pressure and then sealing the cabin just before impact)... The "pilot monitoring" role can be tougher than the "pilot flying" role when things go wrong. The stick and rudder stuff is what pilots have been doing since their first flight in a Cessna.

It's not clear how much of that work First Officer Jeffrey was allowed to do, however. Sullenberger gave him some ultimately useless busywork, not that we're judging because, hey, chaotic, complicated plane crash. Writes the Times:

With little thrust, and with the plane's airspeed falling sharply, Captain Sullenberger lowered the nose to keep his plane from falling out of the sky. And he set his co-pilot to work at moving through a three-page checklist of procedures for restarting both the engines.

The checklist, investigators said, is intended for planes that are in distress at much higher altitudes - like 35,000 feet. At such heights, of course, there is more time to restart.

As the co-pilot worked desperately on the checklist, the crew radioed the air traffic controller, who had just cleared them to climb to 15,000 feet.

Skiles, who has 23 years with US Air and has been flying privately as a teenager, was pretty active after the plane went down. His wife talked to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel;

The water in the Hudson River was so cold that Jeffrey Stiles' legs were immediately numb, Barbara Skiles said.

Skiles said her husband, 49, walked through the plane to find more life vests for people who had exited without them.

The number two guy never gets the glory. Just ask "Goose" from Top Gun.