New York Before it became an unforgettable story of luck and heroism, US Airways Flight 1549 was on course to be a catastrophe. In five minutes of flight, the stricken jetliner sprinted past one nightmare scenario after another.
The plane skirted skyscrapers and threaded through crowded airspace, horrifying spectators on the streets below. With no working engines, it had to clear the heavily traveled George Washington Bridge. Its landing strip was a stretch of the Hudson River full of commuter ferries. Had it not splash-landed in the river, the plane could have gone down in densely packed neighborhoods in New York City or northern New Jersey.
The abundance of possible catastrophic scenarios was clearly on the mind of the pilot, who told controllers that the jet was “too low, too slow” and near too many tall buildings to reach any airport.
“It was an amazing confluence,” said Karlene Roberts, co-director of the Center for Catastrophic Risk Management at the University of California, Berkeley. “So many things could have gone wrong that didn’t.”
The run of good luck on the flight will be examined further by investigators as they inspect the jet wreckage for more clues about how a flock of birds managed to disable both engines and send the jet on its frightening obstacle course over a city of 8 million people.
The airliner was hoisted late Saturday from the ice-laden current and placed on a barge, its two flight data recorders sent to investigators in Washington. The barge was moved on Sunday night to a Jersey City, N.J., marina, where investigators hope to examine the plane more closely.
National Transportation Safety Board investigators interviewed the pilots on Saturday, and what emerged was a harrowing account of the split-second decisions they made in avoiding a crash.
It started with a wild stroke of misfortune minutes after the plane left LaGuardia Airport on Thursday for Charlotte, N.C. While bird strikes are common, commercial jet engines are fortified against them. They seldom disable an engine, let alone two.
The pilot, Chesley B. “Sully” Sullenberger, could hardly have been better prepared. The 58-year-old former fighter pilot was named best aviator in his class at the Air Force Academy, had flown for US Airways for 29 years and mastered glider flying. He also has investigated air disasters, even studying how airline crews behave in a crisis.
Sullenberger headed for the river, warning passengers to brace for impact and telling air traffic controllers simply: “We’re gonna be in the Hudson.”
Ahead was the George Washington Bridge — the graceful span that carries roughly 108 million vehicles a year between Manhattan and New Jersey. Though quickly losing altitude, the plane made it over the bridge, which rises as much as 600 feet above the water.
Risks of water landing
While a water landing seemed the safest bet, it also carried particular risks.
The goal would have been to set the plane down gently, to keep it from breaking apart and sinking rapidly. Pilots aim to slow a plane without stalling, so it doesn’t drop abruptly, and to keep the wings level.
Drag a wing tip into a wave, and the plane may overturn. If the landing gear is left down, the wheels will catch in the water and likely flip the aircraft. Pilots also need to try to avoid plowing headlong into waves that could tear up the fuselage. Luckily for Flight 1549, the Hudson was fairly calm.
Sullenberger pulled off the landing in textbook fashion.