Airmanship to Live For: Flight 1549

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I suppose we can forgive the mainstream press for having, within the space of a single news cycle, elevated Chesley B. Sullenberger to the rank of sainthood. On the other hand, by any standard, Captain Sullenberger and his FO pulled off a hell of a piece of airmanship on Thursday. We should all hope to do half as well. As I'll bet Sullenberger himself will say when we hear from him, there were two pilots aboard and both deserve kudos. And while we're handing them out, a nod to the cabin crew, too. They train for days like these.

Photo from Flickr user I'mjustsayin
Click to view at full size

What I'll most be interested in learning is how they navigated the decision tree, especially dispensing quickly with the denial phase and accepting that the engines weren't coming back. One photo circulating the web shows the airplane gliding southbound down the river, below the tops of the apartment buildings. Had I seen it in person, the last thing I would have thought is that both engines had crumped.

The graphic shown here — distilled from Flight Aware and clipped from Flickr — shows the flightpath and relative altitudes. The exact position of the reported bird encounter and engine rollback isn't known, but it's probably somewhere past the Cross Bronx Expressway. We're told that the crew or ATC briefly mentioned Teterboro as an option and late news reports suggest a turnback to LGA might have been considered, too. But it's easy to see how Teterboro wouldn't be too appealing from somewhere over the Bronx at 3000 feet. Curiously, the flightpath takes an eastward jink around the George Washington Bridge, whose 800-foot towers obstruct a straight shot at the river. I'll be curious to find out if that's why the airplane jinked that way. Or did the crew make a play back for LaGuardia?

Having been dealt a bad hand, I'm sure the crew was calculating the highest percentage survival choice. For a small airplane, that would almost always be the river. The Hudson's banks are festooned with roads, buildings, boat ramps, railroads and abandoned piers and given the nine-chances-out-of-10 of egressing and surviving a light aircraft ditching, taking the water is a no-brainer. Historically, it's less of a sure bet for airliners and especially jet airliners, whose higher speeds and weights make for high-energy contact with the water. Only one other jet airliner ditching—also in a river—resulted in everyone surviving. Sullenberger and his FO had to make that tradeoff analysis and didn't have much time discuss the pros and cons.

Because there have been so few of them,civil pilots don't train extensively for ditching, if they train at all. Flight manuals for all kinds of aircraft have recommendations for water-landing configurations, but these are largely theoretical and not proven by real-world experience. There's no reliable data to suggest what configurations are best—gear down or up? All the flaps or partial flaps? What speeds to fly? What touchdown attitude works best? Flight 1549's crew had to figure that out on the fly and it looks like they did everything right. Exactly. Moreover, the industry now has a soggy but more or less intact airplane to examine to see how a big hull performs in a water landing—what broke, what didn't? Stitch those findings together with the FDR data and we'll probably learn quite a lot.

But that's for later. For now, let's raise an early-year toast to 1549's crew, the extraordinary response of the boat crews in the area and yes, even the passengers. They kept their wits about them well enough to egress the airplane to live another day. Given the very likely alternatives, that's plenty to cheer about.

Late addition: From the confirmed pedants, of which there seem to be many, we received a flurry of e-mail taking us to task for referring to geese as Canadian Geese rather than Canada Geese. A little trip around the web confirms that either usage is acceptable to describe Branta canadensis. I'll concede that Canada Goose strikes many readers as the proper usage, probably because it's considered the original term. So, take your pick.

Comments (32)

The Captain, F/O and cabin crew are ROCK STARS. Superlative flying, followed by an orderly egress. 10 of 10.

Posted by: James Hammons | January 16, 2009 9:25 PM    Report this comment

Time to take off the kid gloves.Canada geese are life threatening. Chase them off, and they return.
there is a 12 GA solution which needs to be vigorously applied. Tree huggers will disagree .Golfers will agree,
geese are an eating defecating machine.

Posted by: William Demers | January 17, 2009 10:43 AM    Report this comment

I am a pilot. The actions of the flight and cabin crew show the value of judgment and experience. That is one part of the successful outcome.

I am also a boater. The second part of the successful outcome was some expert boat handling. If you watch the available videos, one can see that the first ferry arrived in about two minutes. It delicately approached and maintained position and started taking on passengers right away. Others arrived soon after. The ferry captains didn't hit the airplane or the other boats-- all in a fairly swift current. Outstanding!

Posted by: William Kight | January 17, 2009 6:57 PM    Report this comment

I agree with the comment on the Canada Geese - I like animals and hate to see them suffer, but when human lives hang in the balance, the geese need to go. Here in the midwest, we have a similar problem with deer on the road, and the Dept of Natural Resources arranges hunts to deal with them when the population gets too high.

As for the flight crew, I applaud the fact that they kept their cool and dealt with the situation promptly and correctly. You cannot control bad luck (some places will simply be ugly when it comes to an off airport landing) however as pilots we must control all the factors we can in an emergency. The US Air crew did an excellent job of doing so! Well done!

Posted by: Josh Johnson | January 18, 2009 8:46 PM    Report this comment

G'day Mr.Bertorelli,

Your comment that there is little real data to
determine what factors affect success in ditching
an aircraft is typical and understandable. However,
a quick search of the NASA Technical Reports server
with the word "ditching" turns up 25 hits. One of the interesting results is that during and shortly
after World War II a number of full size aircraft
were ditched at sea under controlled conditions.
Fighter, twin and four engine bombers, etc. were used in these tests. The purpose of these tests was to provide information for flight crews forced to ditch from battle damage. It has been at least 20 years since I read these reports, but as I recall the results were along the lines of "it depends" on the particular design of the aircraft and sea conditions as well as gear up/gear down flaps up/flaps down etc. There are also a number of model studies that have been conducted as shown by the NASA search.

In the case to hand, aside from the outstanding
airmanship of Sullenberger and Skiles and that of
a very perceptive flight attendant the relatively
benign sea conditions in the Hudson, the fact that
the aircraft remained basically intact and that rescue was available immediately accounts for the
very positive results.

David F. Rogers, PhD, ATP
Professor of Aerospace Engineering (Emeritus)

Posted by: David Rogers | January 19, 2009 8:43 AM    Report this comment

I'd bet even money Capt. Sullenberger had previously considered what he would do if he had to put the airplane down after departing Laguardia. Successful pilots always play the "what if" game, so when things quickly go wrong, possible solutions are already filed away and available for consideration. In this case, Capt. Sullenberger already knew his options and correctly chose the river. He and his crew then had the training and the skill to pull it off. It reminds me of the line from "Fate is the Hunter" by Ernest Gann: Anybody can do this when things are going right. In this business we play for keeps.

Posted by: PHILIP BRIDGES | January 19, 2009 8:45 AM    Report this comment


Some years ago, as part of a study I did for Aviation Safety on ditching outcomes, I reviewed about 200 general aviation ditching accidents. That research led me to some of the reports you mention and your recollection is exactly right. None of these yielded any take-it-to-the-bank sure-fire advice on ditching. As you say, it depends on variables that aren't likely to be the same twice. So the best one can do is a global conclusion and this is it: Generally, when confronted with an emergency landing scenario in a light aircraft that doesn't offer a clear, unobstructed surface, but does offer water, water will be the higher percentage option. Egress rates in water landings are in the 90 percent range and survival rates well into the 80s. Not quite so high for airline ditchings, but there haven't been enough of them to make much of the data.


Paul Bertorelli

Posted by: Paul Bertorelli | January 19, 2009 9:42 AM    Report this comment

Paul, nice piece. Thanks for including the graphic. Garrison Keillor sang a nice song Saturday on Prairie Home Companion about Capt. Sullenberger, co-pilot Jeff Skiles and the flight attendents. Nice to hear everyone acknowledged for their part in no lives lost. Astute observation above by Phil Bridges. I would fly with that crew any day.

Posted by: Michael Freeman | January 19, 2009 9:45 AM    Report this comment

Looking at the Photo from Flickr of the flight path, the most remarkable thing is that the aircraft seems to have flown through some time warp portal, emerging at the ditching point at a time before take-off. Perhaps this model of A-320 is equipped with a flux capacitor. Seriously though…my hat is off to all involved. I wish a speedy recovery to those injured. Now let’s get that plane dried out and back on the line.

Posted by: John Hannon | January 19, 2009 11:32 AM    Report this comment

G'day Paul,

Yes, I am familiar with your study published in Aviation Safety. It was well done and I agreed
with your observations.

Dave Rogers

Posted by: David Rogers | January 19, 2009 12:58 PM    Report this comment

In the 1950s a scheduled PAN AM DC7 flight from Hawaii to the Mainland had engine problems and circled all night at the haif way point where a full time ship used to be stationed and then ditched in the open sea when the sun came up. All 50 people on board survived.

Posted by: Michael Magnell | January 19, 2009 2:28 PM    Report this comment

Another successful ditching of an airliner occured on November 22, 1968, at about 10:00 A.M., when Japan Airlines DC-8 "Shiga" belly-flopped with its landing gear down in seven feet of water some three miles short of San Francisco International Airport. Abord were ninety-six passenagers(including several infants)and eleven crewmembers. No one was hurt or even shaken up, and everyone was evacuated safely in the aircraft's life rafts.

The plane was subsequently salvaged at a cost of approximately $2 million (in 1968 dollars) and was flown again on March 26, 1969, and then returned to service with JAL. The Japanese pilot who was responsible for decending below the ILS's glidepath in extremely foggy conditions later took his own life after having lost face.

Posted by: SCOTT W. WILLIAMS | January 20, 2009 12:12 PM    Report this comment

I wouldn't count the Shiga Maru as a ditching, which is defined as an intentional water landing, with steps taken to assure success. That accident was really a water crash with a fortunate outcome. It may seem a difference without a distinction, but I think it's an important one, nonetheless.


Posted by: Paul Bertorelli | January 20, 2009 1:49 PM    Report this comment

As a GA pilot, this seems to be a wonderful testimony to ptoper training, and repetitive practice of what should be done when things go wrong. It's good to have examples like Cpt Sullenberger and FO Skiles as an ideal to which I can work to attain.

One question: Can anyone comment on whether simulator training for this aircraft (presumably required for recurrency) includes ditching scenarios? If so, are those sim sessions realistic enough to try the different options that have been discussed (gear/flaps up or down, approach speed, attitude upon water impact, etc)?

Posted by: Ron Horton | January 20, 2009 4:22 PM    Report this comment

Definitions aside, what the JAL accident demonstrated was the ability of the airframe to remain intact following a controlled, wings-level decent onto the water. The outcome was most fortunate. In that accident, there were no boats able to get out to the aircraft within a few short minutes of the touch down. All of the passengers were evacuated to the aircraft's life rafts and were able to eventually make their way to the nearby yacht harbor by paddling.

Posted by: SCOTT W. WILLIAMS | January 20, 2009 4:51 PM    Report this comment

National Airlines did the same thing as JAL in a B727 going into some airport in Florida and again it was a very successful water landing wheels down as well. I believe that happened in the late 60s or early 70s

Posted by: Michael Magnell | January 20, 2009 7:22 PM    Report this comment

Dick Rutan commented about the lack of liferafts. Presumably this was because of the quick thinking attendant that stopped the rear doors being opened. More analysis may be needed, but does this suggest a "plan b" may be needed to provide additional liferafts in future ditchings. I've flown in oceanic 737s (if 3.5 hrs can be considered oceanic) and they have additional liferafts in the cabin ceiling.

Posted by: Chris Cameron | January 21, 2009 12:48 AM    Report this comment

The National Airlines incident occurred in St. Croix on May 2, 1970. It was a DC-9 that ran out of fuel after three missed approaches. Thirty five of the 58 people aboard survived.

Posted by: Paul Bertorelli | January 21, 2009 3:58 AM    Report this comment

No, the National Airlines accident occurred May 8, 1978 at Pensacola, Florida when the 727 landed about a mile short in Escambia Bay. Three people drowned.

Paul is thinking of Overseas National Airways, that was the 1970 ditching - 35 miles from shore in the Atlantic. Good book came out last year about this acciden called appropritely, "35 miles from shore"
Russ Farris

Posted by: RUSSELL L FARRIS | January 21, 2009 9:47 AM    Report this comment

The entire crew of Flight 1549 did a fantastic job. Capt. Sullenberger was possibly the best pick for this situation and I do not want to detract in any way from his great accomplishment, however (and a friend who went to the Air Force Academy with Capt.
Sullenberger says Bernie would be the first to agree with this)this is what we expect of all flight and cabin crew with which we trust our lives. This is why they train in simulators and they will do their absolute best throughout the entire flight. Just listen to the CVR of the Alaska Airlines MD-83 that crashed off the coast of California in January 2000. That flight crew was dealing with the emergency all the way to the water.

Posted by: Rich Martindell | January 21, 2009 10:01 AM    Report this comment

The very sad thing about the Alaska Airlines MD83 crash in the ocean off of California is it was directly related to airline deregulation and the associated costing cutting by the airlines. Maintenance is the first thing to go!

Posted by: Michael Magnell | January 21, 2009 10:20 AM    Report this comment

Thanks for the point out on the Pensacola accident. That one is new to me. Similar to the JAL DC-8. A land-short incident rather a prepared ditching.

Posted by: Paul Bertorelli | January 21, 2009 2:29 PM    Report this comment

Did anyone else hear the passenger from the last row explaining that she went to the back galley area where a flight attendant was trying to open the rear door. When water came rushing in, the attandant said "oh, we are in the water" and tried to re-close the door. She then sent the passenger to the front of the plane. The passenger said that she was in chest deep water by the time she got out.
Ron Enck
Corvallis, Or

Posted by: Ron Enck | January 21, 2009 4:57 PM    Report this comment

Int check capt 10 years --aircraft have ditch checklists, even though one may not be flying an aircraft authorized for over water flight, most all pilots at U. S. airways know a lot about ditching. They may have flown co-pilot on many airplanes. Pilot experience is deep, deep and deep at U. S. Airways. What happened in the Hudson was a modern MIRACLE. I have given simulator checks for type rides with some pilots who have ten to fifteen type ratings and 20thousand plus hours. and military time to boot, that they don,t even count.
Not one in a million would be confident to say , hey I could have even maybe done that. no not one. They entire crew did there job perfectly I say, they deserve to be heros , Lord knows, they and we retires have had the living crap kicked out of us, by just about everyone on retirement and wages. "Sully and crew may not even get a retirement. U. S. Airways tends to keep the money if they get out of an obligation they will, They terminated one pension plan in 2003 out of seven they had, guess who? the pilots.
Pilots are the most professional overall of any bunch on the planet . They are gone from home 300 hundred hours a month out of 720 hours. Try five trips to europe some year each month and see if can even stay awake on the golf course. " Zombie" is the word. Give these guys the proper credit!!! art

Posted by: art magill | January 21, 2009 7:17 PM    Report this comment

No one has mentioned that the evacuation slides are considered rafts on many commercial aircraft. It appears from the photos that at least one of flight 1549's slides was used for that purpose. The addition of extra rafts is usually not required unless you are operating more than 50 miles from land. While some airlines do carry the extra rafts to allow flexibility in routing their aircraft on flights that would require the equipment, others have chosen to remove them to reduce the weight (remember it costs several pounds of fuel for each pound of weight). Also, the rafts are often stored in the cabin ceiling, requiring time to remove them from stowage and place the near the exits. I doubt the cabin crew of flight 1549 had the time to perform this exercise if they had they rafts. They did manage to get the life vests on their passengers, something that was probably more important to survival in this incident. Outstanding job by the entire crew of flight 1549! Well done!

Posted by: Bill Tanksley | January 22, 2009 9:15 AM    Report this comment

One interesting point illustrated by the flight path is the cost of a turn back to the airport. It might be tempting to look at the length of the plotted flight path to the river touchdown and think "why not a return to La Guardia?". CFI's would do well take this object lesson to their students, and point out that the first 180 degreee turn cost 1600 feet. At best, assuming a pair of 45 to 90 degree turns to come back on course to return to the airport would cost another 800 to 1600 feet, leaving precious little for over the ground travel, and the likelihood of a bad ending. The Hudson was the best call, but then we know that. The miracle was that they had that choice.

Posted by: David MacRae | January 22, 2009 12:36 PM    Report this comment

To add to the valid point David makes above, the area that the plane would have had to cover on its way back to La Guardia is covered with several skyscrapers. The open area afforded by the Hudson River was the most conserative and safest option.

Posted by: SCOTT W. WILLIAMS | January 22, 2009 12:42 PM    Report this comment

As ditching is sometimes necessary, all Part 121/135 captains, first officers and flight attendants should be well versed and practiced (albeit perhaps in simulators) in how do do it.

But its better to prevent an accident than control the consequences of one. So we have got to address the matter of bird strikes. If it takes shooting a bunch of Canada Geese, so be it. Where I work they foul the grounds we walk on like so many undisciplined dogs.

A number of years ago a 737 went into the Potomac River, with all to many fatalities. It would have been nice if more lives could have been saved, but better yet if the aircraft had been properly de-iced before taking off. So we need to emphasize both prevention of emergencies AND proper response to minimize consequences if and when they happen in spite of our precautions.

Posted by: Alex Kovnat | January 26, 2009 1:29 PM    Report this comment

The splash down of the Air Florida B737-200 in the Potomac was more a matter of the pilots not using engine deice while on the ground and during takeoff. The fact the aircraft underwent a fairly long time from deicing to takeoff did not help the matter any!

Posted by: Michael Magnell | January 26, 2009 1:42 PM    Report this comment

In what may be the last comment posted to this thread about Flight 1549, I would like to put forward the question: In a year or so, certainly 5, will anybody remember who Captain Sullenberger is?

Here's an example of why I ask: Years ago, there was an incident where an airline captain accomplished a miraculous landing of a jetliner (I'm pretty sure it was a Lockheed 1011, but the DC-10 was also a large trijet) which suffered failure of ALL THREE engines.

Here's the deal: Some rum-dum mechanic omitted a vital O-ring seal in one engine, and unfortunately since he was maintaining all three engines, he omitted the same seal in the other two engines as well.

To make a long story short, the captain of that flight was, by some miracle, able to get enough pound-seconds of thrust impulse out of those failed engines to avoid a disaster, in spite of the same kind of zero-power (or, in this case, very close to zero-power) situation that Captain Sullenberger had to deal with.

Does anybody remember the name of the captain on that L-1011 flight? So to Captain Sullenberger I say to thee: In a year or so, you too will be forgotten.

But hopefully not to the aviation (particularly the Part 121/135) fraternity.

Posted by: Alex Kovnat | January 28, 2009 8:18 AM    Report this comment

Does anyone remember the British pilots who lost their engines, and the FO was not only a fan of old airfields, but had also recently written his ATPL subjects. So he was able to identify a suitable disused WW2 airfield and work out the correct airspeed/rate of descent to get the airplane to that field?

Posted by: Jennifer Laws | February 7, 2009 2:37 PM    Report this comment

Hey Paul,

Please excuse my very late response to this thread.

It is certainly true that the captain and crew of the flight deserve every bit of praise they have been given for decision making, airmanship and overall performance. I don't think it makes their achievement any less wonderful to remember that there were a number of circumstances that were working in their favor that day. If any of these factors were not present, the outcome could have been different.

1- It was daylight.

2- They had excellent visibility.

3- The winds were not excessive and certainly not crosswind to the river.

4- The water was quite calm which reduced the chance of catching a wing or landing between crests which might break the fuselage.

5- Even the current seemed to be flowing quickly in the direction of their landing which reduced contact speed.

All of the above made the landing easier or even possible. The wind and water conditions made a quick rescue possible too, Could a pitching ferry have approached a pitching wing within a foot?

It is worth remembering that Captain Sully is also a glider pilot, CFIG in fact, if I remember correctly. (So was the pilot of the Gimli glider, by the way.) There's nothing like repeatedly landing without a chance of go-around to keep you sharp and humble.

Richard Starr

Posted by: Richard Starr | March 4, 2009 12:56 PM    Report this comment

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