Congress Hears From Hudson Controller, Captain, And Crew

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On Capitol Hill on Tuesday, Patrick Harten, the air traffic controller who was on duty the day US Airways Flight 1549 ditched in the Hudson, spoke about the event publicly for the first time. He told members of the House Subcommittee on Aviation that when he heard Capt. Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger tell him, "We're gonna be in the Hudson," he asked him to repeat himself, even though he heard him just fine. "I simply could not wrap my mind around those words," Harten said calmly. "People don't survive landings on the Hudson River, and I thought this was a death sentence. I believed at that moment, I was going to be the last person to talk to anyone on that plane alive." Harten said that during the emergency itself, he was hyper-focused. "I had no choice but to think and act quickly, and remain calm. But when it was over, it hit me hard. It felt like hours before I learned about the heroic water landing that Captain Sullenberger and his crew had managed. Even after I learned the truth, I could not shake the image of tragedy in my mind. ... I felt like I had been hit by a bus." Harten will return to work later this week for the first time since the ditching. The panel also heard from Capt. Sullenberger, who warned that airlines of the future may not be as safe as airlines today. "I am worried that the airline-piloting profession will not be able to continue to attract the best and the brightest," Sullenberger said. "The current experience and skills of our country's professional airline pilots come from investments made years ago when we were able to attract the ambitious, talented people who now frequently seek lucrative professional careers elsewhere," he said. "I do not know a single professional airline pilot who wants his or her children to follow in their footsteps."

His pay has been cut by 40 percent in recent years and his pension has been downgraded, he said. This may not be news to those of us in the aviation world, but it will be interesting to see if America's favorite pilot can get the attention of the public and Congress by making clear that the economic changes that have made airline pilots' careers less appealing may ultimately affect safety. "Americans have experienced huge economic difficulties in recent months, but airline employees have been experiencing those challenges and more for eight years," Sullenberger said. "We've been hit by an economic tsunami, September 11, bankruptcies, fluctuating fuel prices, mergers, loss of pensions and revolving-door management teams who have used airline employees as an ATM.... The single most important piece of safety equipment is an experienced, well-trained pilot." The panel, whose purpose was to examine what safety issues may have been revealed by the ditching, also heard from the rest of the US Airways crew and several officials from the aviation industry and regulatory agencies. During discussions, the panel suggested they might review rules regarding what airplanes must be equipped with life rafts, whether passengers should be instructed to stay away from the rear exits in the event of a water landing, and if the labor laws that govern the airlines should be separated from those that govern the railroads. In response to questions about the birds, Sullenberger said he believed the collision that shut down both engines was likely a "fluke," and it would be difficult in any case to reduce or control bird populations. He did say that it would be worthwhile to review engine certification standards in regard to bird strikes. Robert Sumwalt, of the NTSB, said those standards will be reviewed as part of the board's ongoing investigation into the accident. Video of the hearing is posted online.