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Capt. Sullenberger details drama of emergency Hudson River landing

Investigators at the National Transportation Safety Board hearing laud the pilot for quick thinking and keeping his cool, and press him for lessons to prevent future accidents.

June 10, 2009|Jim Tankersley and Kristina Sherry

WASHINGTON — His engines were out. His plane was dropping toward the water. The 150 passengers were braced for impact. And air traffic controllers were beckoning him to two runways that were close but not close enough.

At that moment, with the unflappable elan that would make him a national hero, Chesley B. "Sully" Sullenberger III, pilot of US Airways Flight 1549, turned to his first officer and said, "Got any ideas?"

Seconds later, as the plane splashed down onto the Hudson River in a water landing so deft that all aboard survived and there were only five serious injuries, Sullenberger and First Officer Jeffrey B. Skiles looked at each other and said, almost at the same time, "Well, that wasn't as bad as I thought."

The dramatic moments were laid out in cockpit recordings, investigators' interviews and personal testimony by Sullenberger and others Tuesday at a National Transportation Safety Board hearing.

In addition to recounting the final moments of the ill-fated flight and his decision to set down in the river, Sullenberger described the emotional jolt he felt when -- shortly after lifting off from New York's LaGuardia Airport on Jan. 15 -- his plane ran into a flock of Canada geese and instantly lost all power in its two engines.

"If you think I wasn't startled, you misunderstand," he said. But, he added, he and Skiles quickly shook off their dismay "and moved on to the task at hand."

Federal safety investigators praised Sullenberger for quick thinking and keeping his cool, and pressed him for lessons that could help prevent future accidents. "I want to bottle your mind-set and make sure everybody is drinking from that same bottle," the chairman of the NTSB's Board of Inquiry, Robert Sumwalt, told Sullenberger.

The NTSB convened the three-day hearing as part of its investigation into the incident.

The agency released hundreds of pages of documents that, with the testimony of Sullenberger and others, sketched the most vivid picture yet of the crash, its prelude and its aftermath.

For Sullenberger, Jan. 15 started in Pittsburgh with a flight to Charlotte, N.C., and then on to New York. He picked up a sandwich for lunch before taking off from LaGuardia about 3 p.m. Days later, he would realize that the sandwich was still on the plane.

Flight attendants ran through the usual safety procedures, but because the flight was not scheduled to cross water, they did not demonstrate the life vests. Only 12 passengers would later report having read their safety cards.

As the Airbus lifted off under blue skies, Sullenberger noted: "What a view of the Hudson today."

The plane was climbing between 3,000 and 5,000 feet when the geese appeared -- in a straight line, perfectly spaced and so close that there was no avoiding them. When they smacked the engines, Sullenberger said, it sounded like it was "raining birds," like the sound he remembered from his childhood in Texas when a squall would blow in and multiply the raindrops by 100.

Flight attendants heard a thud, then quiet as the engines cut out. There was what some described as a "burning electrical smell" -- Sullenberger identified it as "cooked bird." Passengers watched the engines catch fire. "Breathe, just breathe," a flight attendant told a man in the first row who had started to panic.

The plane lost power, Sullenberger placed a mayday call, and the cabin filled with cries of "pray, pray, pray."

A few passengers used cellphones to call loved ones or send text messages. One man tried dialing his phone, "but could not get the password in because his hands were shaking," investigators reported.

The flight lasted five minutes -- which were reconstructed as an animated video, overlaid with audio from the conversations between Sullenberger and the control tower.

Played at the hearing, the video several times evoked laughter from the audience as seemingly frantic air traffic controllers kept directing Sullenberger's attention to runways at LaGuardia and a New Jersey airport, and the pilot kept saying that he was going for the Hudson. It was the only reachable destination that was long and smooth enough for a landing, he had decided. In the midst of one of the world's most densely populated areas, he testified, he "couldn't afford to be wrong."

As the plane headed down, Sullenberger warned passengers to brace for impact. Some doubled over; some leaned back. They landed with a smooth thud, and the flight attendants, who had been focused on the cabin, looked outside for the first time.

"It was 'the surprise of [her] life,' " investigators said one flight attendant recalled, "because she had never considered that they would be in the water." Passengers and crew described a relatively calm evacuation and rescue, even as the plane took on water. One woman exited onto the wing, but when her 3-inch heels slipped, she slid into the river and had to be pulled out.

Most people left their belongings on board, but one woman escaped with a mink coat, her purse and a briefcase, only to be forced to discard the fur and the briefcase in a bid to swim to a ferryboat. She insisted on keeping the purse, which a man offered to carry onto the ferry.

One man, among the last to leave the plane, found himself seated next to Sullenberger in a raft. "He spoke briefly with the pilot," investigators said, "and thanked him for saving their lives."

Skiles, the first officer, had logged more than 20,000 hours of flight time. But it was only his second trip on an Airbus.

"Asked how he liked the Airbus," investigators reported, he said that he liked it -- "right up until the accident."

--

jtankersley@latimes.com

ksherry@tribune.com

Andrew Zajac of the Washington bureau contributed to this report.

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