Great escape: Miracle on the Hudson river

Passengers and crew rescued from jet crippled by bird strike after take-off

David Usborne
Friday 16 January 2009 01:00 GMT

A US Airways jet dropped abruptly out of the sky into the frigid waters of the Hudson river yesterday after being crippled by what initial reports said were birds entering one or both of its engines shortly after take-off from La Guardia airport.

Across New York, astonished residents, workers and tourists watched as the Airbus 320, with 150 passengers and five crew on board, descended and struck the water a stone's throw from the densely populated avenues of Manhattan. The jet skimmed the surface almost like a sea-plane.

"You are watching this plane coming down and you are thinking, 'are these people are going to die?' It was like watching those planes during 9/11 all over again," said Gloria Shafer who saw the plane disappear behind buildings.

The crash will enter the annals of aviation as something akin to a miracle, as loss of life or serious injury was averted. The pilots, led by Captain Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger III, ditched the plane without the fuselage breaking up, which could have led to mass loss of life. Captain Sullenberger has worked for US Airways since 1980 and is a former air force pilot.

The impact was immediately followed by a swift and orderly evacuation as water seeped into the cabin.

While there was relief among New Yorkers last night that the plane had struck no buildings, it was the passengers who were the most thankful.

"Wow, thank the Lord and thank the pilot," said Alberto Panero, one of those on board. "I cannot believe he managed to land that plane safely. This was a near-death experience."

Some of those on board the US Airways Flight 1549 from New York to Charlotte, North Carolina, described how the passengers on the almost full aircraft quickly moved to open the emergency exits after the impact. Once outside, where the temperature was -7C, they lined up on the wings as boats, including tourist pleasure craft and ferries, approached to pick them up and take them to safety. Others stepped into rafts that had inflated outside the plane's front exits.

Many passengers emerged from the jet clutching yellow lifejackets or the bottoms of their seats, as a typical safety video suggests they should. A few found themselves wading knee-deep or up to their waists as the aircraft's wing dipped under the water.

As dusk fell, it became clear that no one had perished in the crash and even the injuries had mostly been minor.

The survivors, including one infant and several senior citizens, as well as five crew members, were transferred by the boats to facilities in Manhattan and on the New Jersey side of the Hudson river.

A small number were transferred to area hospitals, but all were believed to be in stable conditions. The New York Mayor, Michael Bloomberg, said he had spoken to one survivor who had lost a brother in the 9/11 attacks.

The Governor of New York, David Paterson, said: "There is a heroic pilot who saved himself and 154 other people. We have had a miracle on 34th Street and I believe that today we have had a miracle on the Hudson."

Even as water began to fill the cabin, the pilot walked the full length of the plane twice before getting off himself to make sure everyone had been safely evacuated.

The aircraft was only airborne for about three minutes, attaining an altitude of barely 3,000 feet, before beginning its rapid descent. Witnesses from on the ground near La Guardia said they saw the Airbus hit a flock of birds, possibly Canadian geese. Federal officials said the pilot radioed to air-traffic controllers soon after take-off that the plane had suffered a "double bird strike", suggesting that both engines had been disabled.

For many, the scenes were reminiscent of the day 27 years ago when an Air Florida plane crashed after taking off from National Airport in Washington DC, plunging into the partially ice-covered waters of the Potomac river – 74 of the 79 people on board died.

Officials said the pilot initially tried to fly as far as Teterboro Airport, a private airstrip on the New Jersey side of the Hudson river. However, it quickly became clear the aircraft would not make the distance.

With a double-engine failure, a pilot might normally attempt to find smooth pavement on land to try to get his equipment down. But Manhattan's lack of open spaces meant the pilot was forced to try to land on the river, which was free of ice and relatively smooth, although the temperature in New York was well below zero.

Several passengers said the only instruction given to them from the cockpit had been an announcement from the pilot to "brace for impact". "I pretty much said to myself, now this is it, let's do it," recalled Mr Panero. He believed everyone had survived because the aircraft did not break up. "At first there was a little bit of a panic. There were a couple of people who took charge and started yelling to calm down. Once people realised we were going to be OK, everybody calmed down and tried to get out of the plane."

Some passengers said they heard what sounded like at least one explosion before the drama unfolded. Those noises, it is assumed, were the impact of the birds hitting the engine.

Mr Bloomberg cautioned about jumping to conclusions about the cause of the crash, saying a team of federal investigators were headed to New York last night. Ferries and coast guard boats towed the plane to the exreme southern tip of Manhattan, where it was tied up and remained partially afloat last night.

The challenge: Landing on water

Landing a plane on water is not easy and is rarely attempted. In choosing to do so, the pilot must have decided he would not make it to LaGuardia or Teterboro Airport. The lack of any other large enough space meant the Hudson River was the only option. David Learmount, the operations and safety editor of Flight Global, said it was important to keep the plane "absolutely level" when landing on water, to stop a wing-tip hitting the water first and causing the fuselage to break up.

Pilot's fear: Winged menace

Hitting a flock of geese is one of the things pilots fear most. Aviators train how to cope with it by using flight simulators but there is little that can be done if all engines are affected, other than find a place to land quickly.

A flock of geese was reported to have flown in front of the Airbus 320, flying from New York's La Guardia Airport to Charlotte, North Carolina, shortly after take-off. Flames were seen coming from the left engine both engines were reportedly knocked out. Canada geese are amongst the most feared by pilots, along with other large birds such as pelicans and vultures.

Mike Swanigan, an American pilot who flies a similar kind of plane, said there would have been too little time to avoid a flock of birds. "You see them coming and you just have to fly through them," he said. Mr Swanigan said the flight crew appeared to have done an "amazing job" in making a near-perfect belly-landing on the river.

Ian Johnston

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