Aaah, this is Cactus 1549, we lost thrust in both engines. We are
turning back toward LaGuardia.
We can't do it. We're gonna be in the Hudson.
— Chesley B. "Sully" Sullenberger III, pilot of US Air Flight 1549
THURSDAY, 15 JANUARY 2009 (UNITED STATES): The flight of a U.S. Airways jet
bound from New York to Charlotte, North Carolina changed in a
minute from mundane to miraculous. Ninety seconds after a routine takeoff, the
plane encountered a flock of geese, sucking one or more into the
engines. One engine failed immediately and the other a few moments later. In a
series of events which reads more like a Hollywood disaster film script than
pilot lowered the plane ever-so-gently onto the freezing waters of the Hudson
River, making possible the successful, rapid rescue of every soul on board.
U.S. Airways flight 1549 from New York's La Guardia International Airport to
Charlotte/Douglas International Airport is gaining altitude after being
cleared for takeoff. Manhattan's concrete and steel towers rise, gleaming in the sunshine, beneath the plane.
The fairly clear weather makes it appear a perfect day for flying.
Flight 1549's pilot, Chesley B. "Sully" Sullenberger III, radios air traffic
control, telling them his plane had suffered a "double bird strike." This is
pilots' vernacular for birds having been sucked into both engines of the Airbus
A320. Both the plane's engines had stopped.
Pilots have been tackling the problem of bird strikes since Wilbur and Orville Wright reported one in 1905. In a modern jetliner,
the jets' turbines spin so fast that even a small bird can wreak havoc with the
machinery. All it takes is for one fan blade to break and the engine experiences
a "cascading failure" in which the broken blade compromises the rest of the
vanes on the jet's fan, or smashes other parts of the jet's engine. Although
modern airliners can survive the ingestion of "swallow-sized birds," it's
estimated that the birds sucked into flight 1549's engines weighed in at about
ten pounds each. Canada Geese have become an increasingly vexing problem for airports, airlines and air traffic controllers. The normally migratory geese have established vast colonies in and around New York City, whose airports are surrounded by wetlands, both protected and unprotected.
Co-pilot Jeffrey Skiles began going through a three-page "engine re-start"
checklist, struggling furiously to get one or both engines spinning again and
hopefully gain altitude. The plane was gliding at 3,300 feet; the checklist was
meant to be commenced with a buffer of ten times that altitude, about 35,000 feet. Meanwhile pilot Sullenberger checked
his emergency landing options. The plane was too far away from La Guardia. New Jersey's Teterboro Airport, a haven for private jets, was another
option, assuming the engines could be re-started. Gliding to Teterboro without
engine power, however, risked a catastrophic collision in a highly-populated
The third option was to ditch
the plane in an emergency landing, away from densely populated area. Given the
plane's low altitude and slow airspeed, the Hudson River became the only option. As
the plane glided over the George Washington Bridge in the Bronx, Sullenberger
radioed to air traffic control, "we're gonna be in the Hudson."
While Sullenberger and Skiles struggled with matters in the cockpit, anxiety in the cabin rose with each harbinger of disaster. Passengers reported hearing noises varying from a loud "thump," to an explosion followed by a terrifying silence,
which one flight attendant likened to "being in a library,"
absent the drone of the jet's engines. The cabin was filled with "a metallic
burning" odor, said another flight attendant. A first-class passenger commented, "I think we hit a bird." A
coach passenger recoiled in horror when the engine outside his window caught
fire. Another had time to text message her husband, "my plane is crashing."
Of all people, Sully Sullenberger was the right man to be at the stick during
a catastrophe of this magnitude. Not only had Sullenberger been flying for U.S.
Airways for 29 years, he also heads up his own safety consulting firm, Safety
Reliability Methods. The company's mission is to apply the safety techniques of
the ultra-safe airline industry to other industries' safety programs. In fact,
Sullenberger had lately been studying the psychology of keeping crewmembers
functioning in a catastrophe at the University of California, Berkeley's Center
for Catastrophic Risk Management. Prior to his commercial aviation career, Sullenberger was an Air Force Fighter Pilot for eleven years.
When a plane is getting ready to crash with a lot of people who trust
you, it is a test.. Sully proved the end of the road for that test. He had
studied it, he had rehearsed it, he had taken it to his heart.
—Robert Bea, CE, founder of UC Berkeley's Center for
Catastrophic Risk Management.
"Brace for impact."
The pilot warned passengers that there was trouble and that an emergency
landing was imminent. Sullenberger pinpointed a portion of the water where the
channel was fifty feet and without obstruction. If the angle of the aircraft was
too high or too low he risked "cartwheeling" the plane; surely causing it to
break apart. A similar break-up could occur if the nose of the plane plunged
into the water before the belly of the fuselage could absorb some of the impact.
The skill necessary to land on the water safely, without engine power, is
akin to a very high-stakes game of skipping stones.
A flight attendant later said she wasn't aware the plane had landed on water.
She likened the plane's touch-down to a routine "rough landing." A passenger
told news writers that the impact was no more a jolt than being in a moderate
rear-end collision in one's automobile.
The pilots didn't have time to throw the jetliner's "ditch switch," which
closes fuselage vent holes in the event of a water landing. The plane floated,
however, despite taking on water rapidly. It's possible that the jet fuel in the
craft's wings (which thankfully didn't explode) buoyed the aircraft, giving the
passengers and crew time to exit via the wing emergency doors and walk out onto
the plane's wings. Passengers and crew alike described "organized chaos" as the
plane's occupants grabbed flotation devices and exited the sinking craft. Women
and children were pushed towards the exits first; and all passengers finally
exited the plane via two emergency exits and two cabin doors. Only one passenger
was noticed attempting to remove a computer from the plane's luggage rack.
The plane went down at a location between Weehawken, New Jersey and 48th
Street in New York City. Within a minute, the first of fifty water craft, a New
York Commuter Ferry, arrived on the scene and began plucking wet, freezing
passengers from the water. Aside from shouts to "hurry up" the rescue was
remarkably without drama, said a ferry operator.
Co-pilot Skiles walked through the cabin once, gathering flotation jackets
that had been left behind. Pilot Sullenberger walked through the watery cabin
twice to ensure no one was left behind before he abandoned ship.
Birds and Aircraft
Air traffic controllers are armed with warning devices to notify them, and
pilots, of the presence of birds along an airliner's route. Most incidents with
birds take place close to the ground, on takeoff or landing. In the case of
flight 1549, however, there was no warning and the flock of birds seemed to
appear from nowhere.
Wikipedia reports approximately 200 deaths in recent aviation history due to
aircraft/bird encounters. When contrasted with millions of air passengers
annually, it's still true that air flight is the safest means of transportation;
safer than ground travel in one's own automobile.
On the Ground
Witnesses in high-rise apartment buildings on New York's Upper West Side saw
an aircraft flying suspiciously low shortly before the crash. One resident
suspected terrorism, particularly in light of the events of September 11,
2001. Onlookers on the ground were amazed that the plane landed as smoothly as
it did, merely displacing a spray of water, and remaining structurally intact.
The spot Sullenberger picked to ditch the plane was within a minute's reach
of numerous watercraft. This is the reason the passengers and crew didn't drown
or freeze to death in the icy thirty-degree waters of the Hudson. It's standard
airline protocol that when ditching a plane in water to do so as near potential
rescue vessels as possible.
The aircraft finally sank, but was lifted onto a barge, intact, two days
following the crash. Both cockpit voice recorders ("black boxes") were
recovered. The FAA's investigation of the
crash is ongoing.
Associated Press Reports
"All Safe as U.S. Airways Plane Crashes," McFadden, Robert, The New York
Times January 15, 2009.
"Double Bird Strike: Did it Crash US Airways Flight 1549?" by Amy Judd Now
Public Media January 16, 2009.
"Tracking U.S. Airways Flight 1549" The New York Times January 15,
"Miracles: First Footage of Sully's Miracle Water Landing" Gawker.com