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 real-life, the 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.

3:26 P.M.

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.

3:30 P.M.

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 urban area.

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." 

Captain Sullenberger

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, 2009

"Miracles: First Footage of Sully's Miracle Water Landing"


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