A collision course with disaster for flight 1549 over New York City

As the crew on flight 1549 went through the safety drill, few of the 150 passengers would have been paying attention. Some may have even joked about the usefulness of a lifejacket in the unlikely event of a crash.

At 3.26pm yesterday, when the US Airways flight took off from New York's LaGuardia airport, many would have been settling back into their seats for a routine two-hour flight to Charlotte, Virginia, a journey safer than catching the bus or crossing the street.

But at 3.29pm, they found themselves freezing, in shock and floating in the middle of the Hudson River.

The take-off itself went well but, according to early accounts of what happened over the next three minutes, the plane was on a collision course with disaster. Unknown to the pilots, they were fast approaching an equally oblivious flock of geese.

Some 30 to 45 seconds later and with little or no warning, several of those birds were sucked into the Airbus 320's two jet engines. The captain, Chesley B "Sully" Sullenberger III, would have "immediately felt it in his hands", according to veteran fliers. He quickly relayed the information to air traffic controllers with the words "double bird strike".

The passengers also realised something was wrong; several reported an explosion in one engine, which caught fire as the birds' bodies mangled the blades of the jet. And it appears that both engines lost power.

The pilots would have quickly realised they were in trouble. The National Air Traffic Controllers Union reported that the pilot asked to return to LaGuardia, but as he was being given instructions to turn, he realised that he was not going to make the distance.

On the ground below, Captain Sullenberger could see another airstrip and asked traffic controllers which one it was. "That's Teterboro," came the reply and landing at the New Jersey airport became the new plan.

This was to be the last communication with air controllers.

The plane had reached an altitude of 3,000ft, but with no power, it would not be long before the plane hit the ground.

As the seconds ticked away, the pilots made what must have been an incredibly difficult decision: rather than fly over a populated area to reach the safe landing offered by Teterboro, they would instead try a water landing on the Hudson River. As it flew over the George Washington Bridge, the plane was flying at an altitude of just 900ft. Understandably, there was little time to think of anything else but how to land the plane safely. It is possibly about now that the captain told passengers, who were already fearing the worst, that they should "brace for impact – because we're going down".

The people working in the buildings surrounding the Hudson who saw what was happening – seeing a passenger jet flying at such a low level in the midst of New York – there were more fears of a terrorist hijacking and a 9/11-style attack ahead of the inauguration of Barack Obama.

Sean Court saw what was happening and feared the worst. "I wasn't sure if it was going to come towards the city. A low-flying plane of this size... [terrorism] was the first thing I thought of," he said. But as it flew lower and lower, the onlookers could see it was heading for the Hudson. Christian Martin, on the 32nd floor of a nearby building, described how the pilot had brought the jet down safely. "I saw a plane coming down the Hudson in a very controlled fashion," he said. "It touched down in a perfect 'rear-first' approach. It landed at about 56th Street and skidded along for 100 to 200 yards. Then a wing caught the water and it made an abrupt left turn. It was really just a remarkable job... It could not have been more controlled and smooth as the pilot touched down on the water."

From far away, it may have seemed a smooth touchdown, but inside passengers were in a state of terror. Jeff Kolodjay, a passenger, said: "The engine blew. There was fire everywhere and it smelled like gas. People were bleeding all over. We hit the water pretty hard. It was scary.

"It was intense. It was intense. You've got to give it to the pilot. He made a hell of a landing."

Within minutes, a nearby ferry was on the scene and it took just 90 seconds for everyone on board to evacuate. "They got out very, very quickly," said Mr Martin, the witness. Some of the passengers slipped or jumped into the freezing waters on one of the coldest days of the year.

Of the 150 passengers and five crew, just one person was physically injured, reportedly with two broken legs. Two others were said to have "non-life-threatening" hypothermia and 78 were treated for minor injuries. The last to leave was the hero of the day, Captain Sullenberger.

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