Wreckage of 'miracle' plane recovered

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The Independent US

Salvage crews have hoisted a US Airways jetliner from the Hudson River and onto a barge days after its pilot made a split-second decision to attempt a water landing to avoid a "catastrophic" crash over populated areas.

Investigators retrieved the plane's black boxes, which were filled with water. They were sent off to Washington for examination.

The aircraft's torn and shredded underbelly revealed the force with which it had hit the water. Its right wing appeared charred, some pieces of metal dropped from the plane as it was manoeuvred in the darkness last night, and the destroyed right engine appeared as though the outside had been peeled off.

An emergency slide still hung from the plane; nearby, a compartment door was open, with luggage still visible inside. A gash extended from the base of the plane toward the windows. And in places, the skin of the aircraft was simply gone. But much of its top half looked relatively untouched, as thought it might be ready for takeoff.

After a day of struggling in icy waters to secure the heavy craft, the mood on the shoreline turned festive. People shook hands and investigators took snapshots, while police helicopters hovered overhead.

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

Co-pilot Jeff Skiles, who was flying US Airways Flight 1549, noted the birds coming in perfect formation. Sullenberger said that in an instant the windscreen was filled with big, dark-brown birds.

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

The account illustrated how quickly things deteriorated after the bump at 3,000 feet.

With both engines out, Higgins said, flight attendants described complete silence in the cabin, "like being in a library". A smoky haze and the odour of burning metal or electronics filled the plane.

The NTSB said radar data confirmed that the aircraft intersected a group of "primary targets," almost certainly birds, as the jet climbed over the Bronx. Those targets had not been on the radar screen of the air traffic controller who approved the departure, Higgins said.

Sullenberger told investigators he immediately took over flying from his co-pilot and made a series of command decisions: Returning to LaGuardia was out. So was nearby Teterboro Airport, 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."

The co-pilot kept trying to restart the engines, while checking off emergency landing procedures on a three-page list that the crew normally begins at 35,000 feet.

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.

After the hard landing, the crew's third flight attendant - the only one in the rear of the aircraft - made the decision not to open the back exits, she told NTSB investigators after she was released from the hospital.

Before she could get the rearmost passengers to the front of the plane, one woman managed to open one of the doors a crack, letting water into the cabin. Only once they were by the front exit did the flight attendant feel dizzy and realise she had a deep cut to her leg.

The NTSB said sonar teams may have located the sunken left engine of the plane.

Authorities released video showing the crash landing. Security cameras on a Manhattan pier had 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.

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

"It was actually the first time that I cried since the whole incident started," she told "The Early Show" on CBS. She also said the family was making plans to attend President-elect Barack Obama's inauguration, and 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 birds cannot 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 armour 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, Arizona.

He said hits hard enough to cause a total failure happen 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%."

Most bird strikes happen within 5 miles of an airport, lower than 1,000ft, 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 3,000ft, the NTSB says. That caused a total engine failure, and the plane hit the river three and a half 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 realised that they were in the water," Higgins said.

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