Canada geese were the cause of the near-disaster that struck Flight 1459 seconds after it took off from New York's La Guardia to Charlotte, North Carolina, on Thursday afternoon, interviews conducted with the pilots and cabin crew this weekend have all but confirmed.
In dramatic evidence given to investigators, the pilot and co-pilot of the US Airways jet that ditched in the Hudson River both reported seeing a formation of Canada geese as their plane was reaching an altitude of about 3,000 feet. Before they knew it, the windscreen turned dark brown and several loud thuds were heard followed by complete silence as the engines went dead. There was also a smell of burning goose.
Both black boxes from the Airbus 320 were dispatched to Washington DC for detailed analysis by federal crash investigators yesterday after engineers safely hoisted the aircraft onto a barge moored on the southern tip of Manhattan.
Scores of onlookers were crowding the river boardwalk near where the plane sat yesterday morning in a light snow fall. An NTSB spokesman indicated, however, that the plane, which showed a partially shredded underbelly as it came out of the water, would later be towed to an undisclosed location.
The hoisting of the Airbus 320, weighing about one million pounds, began only after divers had spent hours attaching several slings to its belly and wings in icy waters. As the plane rose, it revealed a severely damaged underbelly with large gashes and areas where the fuselage skin was peeling away. It seemed to indicate how close the plane had come to breaking up on its landing.
Also visible was the right engine, its cowling seriously mangled. The port side engine was confirmed missing, however. Sonar scanning of the Hudson River has revealed an object beneath the site of the plane's splash-down and investigators are hopeful it is the engine which they are planning to recover.
Investigators meanwhile continued their interviews over the weekend with Captain Chesley Sullenberger, who has been hailed for a smooth water-landing that saved the lives of all 155 people on board, his co-pilot, Jeff Skiles, and three flight attendants. Parts of what they had to say were relayed to reporters by a board member of the NTSB Kitty Higgins.
Seemingly it was Mr Skiles who first saw the flock of geese and noted how pretty it looked. “He commented on the formation, and he said the next thing he knew the windscreen was filled,” Mrs Higgins reported. Mr Skiles, who had taken care of take-off, immediately handed the controls to the more experienced Captain Sullenberger, saying “your aircraft”.
As Mr Skiles began complicated preparations for a possible crash-landing, Captain Sullenberger told air traffic control that the plane had lost all power and he was planning to turn around. What he said is caught on a recording also made public at the weekend.
“Aaah, this is Cactus 1549,” the captain said. “We lost thrust in both engines. We are turning back toward LaGuardia.” He then considered a possible landing at the Tereboro executive airport in New Jersey before ruling out trying to put the plane down on land for fear of the “catastrophic consequences” of it going badly in a built-up area. He told controllers, “We can't do it. We're gonna be in the Hudson.”
When it came, the landing on the water went as smoothly as anyone could dare to expect - so much so, in fact, that none of the flight attendants, who seconds earlier had been shouting at passengers to brace and keep their heads down, even realised that the plane had come down on water. It only became apparently when the first of the forward doors was opened and a raft automatically inflated.