NTSB: Pilot landed plane in Hudson to avoid catastrophe

Sunday, January 18, 2009

NEW YORK -- The pilot of a crippled US Airways jetliner made a split-second decision to put down in the Hudson River because trying to return to the airport after birds knocked out both engines could have led to a "catastrophic" crash in a populated neighborhood, he told investigators Saturday.

Capt. Chesley B. "Sully" Sullenberger said that in the few minutes he had to decide where to set down the powerless plane Thursday afternoon, he felt it was "too low, too slow" and near too many buildings to go anywhere else, according to the National Transportation Safety Board account of his testimony.

The pilot and his first officer provided their first account to NTSB investigators Saturday of what unfolded inside the cockpit of US Airways Flight 1549 after it ran into a flock of birds and lost both engines.

Co-pilot Jeff Skiles, who was flying the plane at takeoff, saw the birds coming in perfect formation and made note of it. Sullenberger looked up, and in an instant his windscreen was filled with big, dark-brown birds.

"His instinct was to duck," said NTSB board member Kitty Higgins, recounting their interview. Then there was a thump, the smell of burning birds and silence as both engines cut out.

The account showed how quickly things deteriorated after the bump at 3,000 feet, and the pilots' swift realization that returning to LaGuardia or reaching another airport was impossible.

After the bird impact, Sullenberger said he immediately took over flying from his co-poilot and made a series of command decisions.

Returning to LaGuardia, he quickly realized, was out. So was nearby Teterboro Airport, where he had never flown before, and which would require him to take the jet over densely populated northern New Jersey.

"We can't do it," he told air traffic controllers. "We're gonna be in the Hudson."

Sullenberger guided the gliding jet over the George Washington Bridge and looked for a place to land.

Pilots are trained to set down near a ship if they have to ditch, so they can be rescued before sinking, and Sullenberger picked a stretch of water near Manhattan's commuter ferry terminals. Rescuers were able to arrive within minutes.

It all happened so fast, the crew never threw the aircraft's "ditch switch," which seals off vents and holes in the fuselage to make it more seaworthy.

As the details of the river landing emerged Saturday, investigators worked to pull the airliner from the river. After they struggled most of the day with logistics, a crane began trying to raise the submerged jet late Saturday evening.

With its load of water, the craft was estimated to weigh 1 million pounds. The process was expected to last into the night. The jet was entirely submerged next to a sea wall in lower Manhattan and blocks of ice blanketed the river surface.

The NTSB said sonar teams may have located the sunken left engine of the plane. Preliminary radar reports identified an object directly below the crash site.

Crews need to remove the cockpit voice and flight-data recorders and find that engine. Divers originally thought both engines were lost, but realized Saturday that one was still attached. The water had been so dark and murky that they couldn't see it.

The investigation played out as authorities released the first video showing the spectacular crash landing. Security cameras on a Manhattan pier captured the Airbus A320 as it descended in a controlled glide, then threw up a spray as it slid across the river on its belly.

The video also illustrated the swift current that pulled the plane down the river as passengers walked out onto the wings and ferry boats moved in for the rescue.

Authorities also released a frantic 911 call that captured the drama of the flight. A man from the Bronx called at 3:29 p.m. Thursday, three minutes after the plane took off.

"Oh my God! It was a big plane. I heard a big boom just now. We looked up, and the plane came straight over us, and it was turning. Oh my God!" the caller told 911.

At almost the same moment, the pilot told air-traffic controllers that he would probably "end up in the Hudson."

Sullenberger was seen entering a conference room of a lower Manhattan hotel, surrounded by federal investigators, before his interview Saturday. The silver-haired pilot was wearing a white shirt and slacks and seemed composed.

When a reporter approached him for comment, one of the officials responded: "No chance."

NBC said "Today" show host Matt Lauer would interview Sullenberger from Washington on Monday, a day before President-elect Barack Obama is inaugurated.

His wife, Lorrie Sullenberger said "the enormity of the situation" had only begun to sink in Friday night as she watched the news.

"It was actually the first time that I cried since the whole incident started," she said on "The Early Show" on CBS. She also said the family was making plans to attend the inauguration.

She suggested the happy ending was good for the country.

"I think everybody needed some good news, frankly," she said.

Experts say the threat that birds have long posed to aircraft has been exacerbated by two new factors over the past 20 years: Airline engines have been designed to run quieter, meaning that birds can't hear them coming, and many birds living near airports have given up migrating because they find the area hospitable year-round.

Canada geese, one of the most dangerous birds for aircraft, historically migrate not because of cold but a lack of food. Winter weather kills the grass they eat and sources of fresh water freeze over.

But in developed areas, there is often both food and grass year round, found in parks and golf courses.

And there isn't much that be done in the engineering of jet engines to armor them against a strike without hurting their ability to generate thrust.

The most vulnerable part of the engine is the fan, which can be bent or smashed by an ingested bird. Pieces of busted blade then rip through the rest of the engine like shrapnel.

Engines have been fortified so that they can stay intact in the event of such a strike, but they usually cannot be restarted once they are damaged, said Archie Dickey, an associate professor of aviation environmental science at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University's campus in Prescott, Ariz.

He said hits hard enough to cause a total failure are rare, only happening two or three times a year worldwide.

"That's extremely rare," Dickey said. "The chance of it hitting both engines, I'd guess it is less than 1 percent."

Most bird strikes happen within five miles of an airport, lower than 1,000 feet, as planes are taking off or landing. Aircraft hit thousands of birds every year, but they usually bounce off harmlessly.

The US Airways flight hit the birds at 3,000 feet, the NTSB says. That caused a total engine failure, and the plane hit the river 3 1/2 minutes later.

"Brace! Brace! Head down!" the flight attendants shouted to the passengers.

Then, they were in the water. Two flight attendants likened it to a hard landing -- nothing more. There was one impact, no bounce, then a gradual deceleration.

"Neither one of them realized that they were in the water," Higgins said.

The plane came to a stop. The captain gave a one-word command, "Evacuate."

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