Jet captain praised after 'miracle' landing in river


Passengers told of their terrifying ordeal as a jet landed in the Hudson River, writes Denis Staunton, Washington Correspondent

A VETERAN pilot and US air force veteran has been hailed as a hero after his successful landing of a US Airways passenger aircraft in the icy waters of New York’s Hudson River left all 155 people on board alive and unhurt.

Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger (57) decided to ditch the aircraft in the river yesterday after it hit a flock of migrating birds, putting both engines out of action.

New Yorkers were celebrating the remarkable landing as “The Miracle of the Hudson”, while mayor Michael Bloomberg praised Sullenberger’s “masterful” handling of the aircraft and his outstanding courage.

“He walked the plane twice after everybody else was off and tried to verify that there was nobody else on board, and he assures us there was not,” Mr Bloomberg said.

As aviation investigators arrived in New York to question the pilot and establish the precise sequence of events that led to the emergency landing in the Hudson, passengers recalled the aircraft’s terrifying descent minutes after it took off from La Guardia airport, bound for Charlotte, North Carolina.

“It’s hard to believe we survived that, we’re forever grateful for the pilot and for all the wonderful people who helped us,” Martin Sosa, who was on the flight with his wife, their four year-old daughter and nine month-old son, told NBC’s Today show yesterday.

Passengers heard the sound of the aircraft striking the birds and when the aircraft changed course, they thought they were returning to the airport. Sullenberger calculated, however, that the stricken engines would not carry the aircraft back to La Guardia and he ordered the passengers to brace for impact.

“It was like a roller coaster, it was just like you see in movies. It was a sharp, abrupt impact. Next thing we know, water’s coming into the cabin,” Sosa recalled.

“People were just trying to jump over each other, jump over the seats. Some people were actually going for their luggage. Everything you’re not supposed to do, people did.”

For Vallie Collins (37) from Maryville, Tennessee, the most terrifying moment came when she and a group of panicked passengers tried to push open an exit at the back of the plane but, as water seeped in from outside, it would only open a crack.

“I put my hands up and said: ‘You can’t get out this way . . . Go to the wings! Keep moving, people! We’re going to make it. Stay calm’,” she said.

A few minutes earlier, Collins, who was sitting in the last row of the plane, heard a loud noise and smelt smoke before the captain ordered passengers to brace for a hard landing.

“I thought, ‘okay, I’m not going to see my husband and three children again’. And I just want them to know at this point, they were the number one thought in my mind,” she said later.

She sent them a text message: “My plane is crashing” but had no time to add the words “I love you”.

As water continued to pour into the cabin and rescue boats and ferries rushed towards the scene, passengers who had been praying frantically became calmer and the evacuation became more orderly.

Women and children were moved off first, some clambering aboard life rafts as others lined up on the wings of the aircraft waiting to be boarded onto boats.

Vince Lombardi, the captain of a ferry boat that carries commuters across the Hudson between New York and New Jersey, said he was leaving to make his trip across the river when he looked up the river and saw something unusual.

“That’s a strange-looking boat,” he told a crewman. “He said, ‘I think that’s a plane’.”

Lombardi headed for the partially submerged aircraft, joining other ferries and official rescue craft evacuating the passengers.

“They were cheering when we pulled up,” Lombardi said.

“People were panicking. They said, ‘Hurry up! Hurry up!’.” Two police scuba divers pulled a terrified woman from a lifeboat as she became lethargic from hypothermia and another woman had to be dragged to safety after she fell off a rescue craft.

Paramedics treated at least 78 patients, most of them for hypothermia, bruises and other minor injuries, but many passengers were entirely unscathed, some of them still pristine in their business suits as they came ashore.

Sullenberger, who lives in California, was expected to remain in New York for a few days and will not be allowed to speak to the media until the investigation into the crash is complete.

Bloomberg said yesterday, however, that he planned to give the pilot the keys to the city of New York as a mark of respect for his display of “grace under pressure”, which Ernest Hemingway described as the essence of heroism.

“I think it’s fair to say that Captain Sullenberger displayed that yesterday. His brave actions have inspired millions of people in this city and millions more around the world,” the mayor said.

“I have here a key to the city and am going to hold on to it until we have the opportunity to present it to the pilot, co-pilot and incredibly brave crew of US Airways flight 1549.”

Sullenberger’s wife, Lorrie, said she had been unaware of the drama on the Hudson until her husband called her after it was over. “I’ve heard Sully say to people, ‘It’s rare for an airline pilot to have an incident in their career’,” she told CNN.

“When he called me he said: ‘There’s been an accident’. At first I thought it was something minor, but then he told me the circumstances, my body started shaking and I rushed to get our daughters out of school.”

Aviation experts said yesterday that the US Airways flight appeared to have encountered an improbable combination of events. Aircraft strike flocks of birds frequently – at least 486 such collisions have been reported in the US since 2000 – but the impact is seldom powerful enough to knock out an engine.

Losing both engines at the same time is even more uncommon but a safe landing on water is more unusual still.

One airline safety expert said that Thursday’s incident was only the fourth time in the jet era that the pilot of a commercial flight has intentionally put down in water.

‘Perfect landing’

THE PILOT who managed to safely land a plane on the Hudson River in New York, saving the lives of all 155 on board, did “absolutely everything right,” according to an aviation expert.
David Learmount, operations and safety editor of Flight Global, said the pilot of US Airways Flight 1549 made a textbook landing.

“If you know you are facing a ditching, the crash-landing of an aircraft on water, it is crucial that you land the plane absolutely level. You must not try to keep the plane airborne and if you land it too slowly you will drop out of the sky.” Mr Learmount said that the pilot had to land the plane perfectly straight – otherwise it would have broken up on impact.

“It is quite clear that he got everything absolutely right.

“Witness reports suggest that the plane hit a flock of birds, and it must have damaged both engines because if it had been one, the captain would have been able to continue.

“Even if he only had a very small percentage of power or even no power at all, it is still possible to ditch a plane, providing you can stick the nose down.” Water was always the safest option to land on if you were forced to crash-land a plane, Mr Learmount said.

“If you are choosing between a forest, a city and water then water is safer every time, so that you can float on the surface, especially if there is land nearby as there was in this case, and the passengers can make a safe exit,” he said.

Mr Learmount said that ditchings – the crash-landing of planes on water – were extremely rare. The last one he could recall was that of Ethiopian Airlines flight 961, which was hijacked on November 23rd, 1996, en route from Addis Ababa to Nairobi. Three Ethiopians seeking political asylum hijacked the plane, forcing the pilot to crash- land in the Indian Ocean near Comoros after running out of fuel, and 125 of the 175 passengers and crew on board were killed.

Chris Yates, a civil aviation security analyst for Jane’s Aviation, said the Hudson crash landing was a remarkable piece of flying.

“Obviously pilots train for this moment but some people react faster than others, and in these circumstances the landing is nothing short of miraculous.”

– (PA)