Thursday, January 15, 2009


From the New York Times:
Minutes after departing La Guardia Airport, what the crew of US Airways Flight 1549 faced Thursday afternoon, at 3,200 feet over the central Bronx, was a really quick decision.

The plane had suffered “a double bird strike,” one of the pilots told an air traffic controller at the New York Terminal Radar Approach Control.

Probably feeling the plane shake after hitting the birds, and certainly feeling the loss of power in both engines and watching the dials show thrust slipping away, the crew looked ahead as the plane turned west, and caught a glimpse of a runway.

What is that small airport, one pilot asked a controller.

Teterboro, in New Jersey, the controller replied, and instructed the pilot to fly south along the Hudson River, then swing back to the north to land there.

Instead, the pilot told the controller that they would ditch the plane in the river. They then cleared the George Washington Bridge by about 900 feet, according to controllers, and at a point near the end of West 48th Street in Midtown Manhattan, the plane slid into the river’s smooth, gray waters.

In a few weeks, a close comparison of radar tapes and cockpit audiotapes will establish where the plane was when that clipped, urgent conversation took place, and other investigators will try to figure out why this one plane, flying through some of the world’s most congested airspace, was the only one to report a bird problem. The twin-engine plane is supposed to be able to fly on one engine.

But from early indications, it appears the pilot handled the emergency river landing with aplomb and avoided major injuries, evacuating the plane, an Airbus A320, calmly in the middle of the river, passengers and officials said.

Airliners are not meant to glide, although occasionally they have to. The pilot of this one, Capt. Chesley B. Sullenberger III, is certified as a glider pilot, according to Federal Aviation Administration records.

Captain Sullenberger, known as Sully, flew the F-4 for the United States Air Force for seven years in the 1970s after graduating from the United States Air Force Academy. He joined USAir, as it was called at the time, in 1980 and became a “check airman,” training and evaluating new pilots or those changing to new aircraft or moving up to captain. He also was an accident investigator for the union, the Air Line Pilots Association.

Captain Sullenberger’s wife, Lorrie Sullenberger, a fitness expert in Danville, Calif., said she learned about the crash on Thursday afternoon when her husband called her. “I haven’t stopped shaking yet,” she said in a brief phone interview.

US Airways pilots can drill for water landings in a simulator, but no one knows how realistic that is. “You’re landing on a big blue screen,” said one US Airways A320 pilot, referring to the flat-panel computer screens in the simulator.

“Better to land at an airport where there’s actual crash-fire-rescue,” said the pilot, who requested anonymity because he did not have his airline’s permission to speak. But the pilot and other experts said the crew appeared to have done a good job.

Ditching can be tricky. The first step is to extend the slats and the flaps, the movable surfaces on the front and back edges of the wings that allow the plane to fly more slowly and to descend to just over the water’s surface.

Another step is to hit the “ditching button,” which seals the openings in the plane. One is the intake, where the engines grab air to pressurize and force it into the cabin, essential to high-altitude flight. Another is the valve at the back that lets air out.

When the plane is flying low enough, it will generate its own cushion of air, a phenomenon called “ground effect,” that lets it fly even more slowly.

“The whole point is to get the airplane slow, to minimize the damage and the forces on the airplane,” said John Cox, a safety consultant who flew the A320 for US Airways and USAir for six years. Mr. Cox said that he knew Captain Sullenberger and that he was “a seriously good aviator.”

While the plane slows, the crew has to be careful not to let it stall, which happens when the wind is flowing over the wings too slowly to generate enough lift. Mr. Cox said the plane would probably have touched down at 100 to 120 knots, roughly 115 to 140 miles per hour.

Ditching is different from landing a glider. Another safety expert, Arnie Reiner, who was a crash investigator for Pan American World Airways and later a pilot for the Delta Shuttle flights out of La Guardia, said the object was to keep the wings level and the nose up slightly, so the fuselage could plane on the water’s surface. Hit in a nose-down attitude, he said, and the plane could dig into the water, potentially damaging the fuselage heavily.

This one settled in with the nose high.
From the San Jose Mercury News:
Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger was the right person to help passengers survive a crisis, said Karlene Roberts, a friend and UC Berkeley professor who co-directs the school's Center for Catastrophic Risk Management, which researches ways to avoid airline tragedies.

"I can imagine him being sufficiently in charge to get those people out," Roberts said. "He's got that kind of personality, which is to his credit."

Sullenberger, who could not immediately be reached, has attended conferences about airline safety and has long been interested in the subject, she said.

He lives in Danville with his wife and two children, Roberts said.

The Associated Press reported that Sullenberger, 58, described himself in an online professional profile as a 29-year employee of US Airways. He started his own consulting business, Safety Reliability Methods Inc., two years ago.

Just a few hours after the crash two Facebook fan pages had been created to express support and appreciation for "Sully," with people from San Francisco to Japan calling the pilot "a living legend" and "a true hero."

Outside the Sullenberger home in Danville, news crews were lined up before 5 p.m. Camera crews and reporters from CNN and all the local TV affiliates waited outside the two-story home near Blackhawk for some word.

A family friend, Margaret Combs emerged from the house: "Everybody is very proud of him, " she told the gathered reporters, but said that his wife was not speaking to the press.

"The U.S. Airways legal team told his wife not to say anything, it's still under investigation," said Combs, adding that Sullenberger's wife "was still pretty shaky. She's watching it on CNN."

As phones could be heard ringing in the house, Combs said the families' lines have been ringing off the hook with calls and interview requests from the New York Times, the "Today Show" and elsewhere.

Neighbor John Garcia added his praises to Sullenberger:

"He's a really nice guy, a little bit quiet. He's a very friendly man, he loves what he does. It doesn't surprise me ....Some people are very good at what they do.

"The attention is well deserved, he's a hero. We in this country need more heroes. He did the right thing," Garcia said.

Roberts said she was looking forward to speaking with Sullenberger to find out how he managed the crisis. Many times, airline crashes go terribly wrong very quickly, she said.

"Often it's a lack of leadership," she said. "Things climb up on one another when they start going wrong.

"I would think they're going to find some things went very well this time."

Associated Press said that Sullenberger reported shortly after takeoff from LaGuardia Airport that birds had knocked out both of the plane's engines. He managed to guide the plane to a landing on the frigid Hudson River and all 155 people on board were pulled to safety as the plane slowly sank.

"We had a miracle on 34th Street. I believe now we have had a miracle on the Hudson," Gov. David Paterson said.
More on Sully:
Chesley B. "Sully" Sullenberger, III is a captain for a major U.S. airline with over 40 years of flying experience. A former U.S. Air Force (USAF) fighter pilot, he has served as an instructor and Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA) safety chairman, accident investigator and national technical committee member. He has participated in several USAF and National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) accident investigations. His ALPA safety work led to the development of a Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) Advisory Circular. Working with National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) scientists, he coauthored a paper on error inducing contexts in aviation. He was instrumental in the development and implementation of the Crew Resource Management (CRM) course used at his airline and has taught the course to hundreds of his colleagues. Sully is a graduate of the U.S. Air Force Academy (B.S.), Purdue University (M.S.) and the University of Northern Colorado (M.A.). He was a speaker on two panels at the High Reliability Organizations (HRO) 2007 International Conference in Deauville, France May 29-31, 2007. He has just been named a Visiting Scholar at the University of California, Berkeley.


Anonymous said...

That's what I EXPECT from every pilot! He's not a hero just because he did his job!!

Anam Cara said...

my husband and I will never forget the day Air Florida went down in the Potomac. We were trappedin the traffic from a sudden snowfall trying to get back to McLean from Seven Corners. Whne we got home we heard the news of hte crash.

Yesterday,hearing the NY news we expected the worst.

Praise God for his infinite mercies!

Andy said...

Think of, how many times we've either asked for traveling prayers or prayed for someone else on the road or in the skies. I can't hep but think that this was an answered prayer and God's hand was upon the good Captain.

BabyBlue said...

Anam Cara, I too was trapped out on 395 (Shirley Highway) in my car when the plane hit the 14th Street Bridge in DC and went into the Potomac. I had just gotten off of George Washington Parkway as the snow was coming down hard and the traffic just stopped out on Shirley Highway. I actually had a CB radio on (I was visiting family in DC from my college in Rhode Island and had driven down during the break). The CB radio went off with a voice crying out "Plane in the water! Plane in the Water!"

Back in those days, of course, there were no cell phones. I turned on the radio to WTOP and found out what had happened. It was shocking. I could see emergency vehicles going north on Shirley Highway and it took me four hours to get to Annandale.

Yes, this story - which brought back not only memories of that day back in 1982, but also 9-11 - was amazing. While pilots are trained to handle intense emergencies, even seasoned pilots and transportation officials are stunned by the brilliance of the US Airways pilot. When one thinks of what could have happened - the enormous tragedy this could have been - that it turned out the way it did (and the flight crew even made it look easy) is extraordinary.

The fact that we can just go online and watch it all - even that is amazing. Good-bye CB radios!


Adrian said...

Anonymous is totally wrong. He has no right to such a "miracle. The pilot is way above average and MUST be commended by both President Bush and President Elect Obama..

Adrian said...

We need improvements somehow. The Geese were wrong for not asking permission to be in the same area as a large jet aircraft. They were probably out of range of the existing equipment in the control tower.The pilots need better equipment/sensors to see these geese...but this is a toughie..

Anonymous said...

Sully killed more birds on this flight than Dick Cheney did on his hunt.

Anonymous said...

Capt Sullenberger, who's skill and professionalism saved the lives of 150 passengers, three flight attendants, his copilot and himself on US Airways Airbus A320 flight 1549 from LaGuardia Airport, New York heading for Charlotte, North Carolina after he was forced to ditch in the Hudson River. These are the kind of professionals that government bureaucracies around the world insist on keeping disarmed in the face of 9/11 and other fatal hijackings. Why?

The defensive use of a handgun is the last sure protection of the cockpit. I would trust pilots like Capt Sullenberger with my life and return to international travel if they were armed.