Hearing over Hudson flight finds safety problems

A National Transportation Safety Board hearing about the U.S. Airways emergency landing finds equipment mishaps and confusion over safety procedures.

June 15, 2009|Kristina Sherry

WASHINGTON — Moments before steering US Airways Flight 1549 into the Hudson River, Captain Chesley B. "Sully" Sullenberger III warned the cabin: "Brace for impact."

Denise Lockie, in seat 2C, put her head between her knees.

Tracey Wolsko, who had been listening to her iPod and reading a romance novel, removed her glasses and high heels and placed an airline pillow between her face and the seat back in front of her.

Billy Campbell, in seat 25A, didn't know what "brace for impact" meant, so he decided to "sort of brace" and looked out the window, trying to remain calm.

Last week, the National Transportation Safety Board held a three-day public hearing on the Hudson incident, the result of a bird strike that caused the Airbus A320 jetliner to lose thrust in both engines and land in the river about four minutes later.

The incident, which caused five serious injuries but no fatalities, has been called a "miracle" for nearly six months. But the NTSB hearing -- along with documents released last week -- revealed some problems with safety equipment and procedures, including confusion over how passengers should prepare for impact.

The jetliner was equipped with flotation vests, slides next to its wings and four life rafts, two of which became unusable after the plane's fuselage fractured on impact, allowing water to cover the rear exits.

Campbell testified that after the plane landed in the Hudson, water began pouring through the "seams" of his window.

Seeing others rush forward, he said, he turned back but was told by a flight attendant that the rear exits were not usable. So he climbed and splashed over the sinking blue seats until he reached an exit behind the cockpit.


Causes for concern

Campbell's testimony raised two concerns:

When he boarded the raft -- the last passenger to do so -- it was still tethered to the sinking plane. The pouch that held the cutting device was never located because the raft was so crowded; it wasn't until a ferryboat rescuer tossed Sullenberger a knife that the raft lines were cut free.

Campbell also recalled being unable to dislodge the safety vest from his seat. He wasn't sure why.

Many passengers, the testimony also showed, did not take flotation devices with them when they left the plane, although crew members and some passengers gathered life vests and tossed them out to the evacuees.

Flight 1549 was lucky to have had rafts and life vests on board, because federal regulations require such equipment only on scheduled extended over-water flights -- which the route from New York to Charlotte, N.C., was not.

Only 20 of the 75 A320 jetliners in the US Airways fleet are equipped for flights over water. Hans-Juergen Lohmann of Airbus Industries testified that the two usable rafts were designed to hold 44 passengers each under normal circumstances, and 55 passengers in unusual circumstances, meaning that there would not have been room for at least 40 of the people who were on the plane that day.

Only 12 of the 150 passengers said they had read their safety information cards before the flight. And few paid "full" attention to the flight attendants' safety demonstration, which had replaced the video version to save on costs.

The safety instruction cards contain illustrations of two different brace positions that are consistent with NTSB recommendations.

According to the US Airways emergency manual for flight attendants, the "standard" brace position for passengers is to tighten their seat belts, cross their wrists and lean forward -- placing their foreheads against the back of their hands and their feet flat on the floor, shoulder-width apart.

An "alternate" position of "face in lap and elbows under knees" is suggested for smaller passengers or those in bulkhead seats.


Varying positions

Upon hearing the "brace" command, many Flight 1549 passengers took cues from other passengers or did what felt most natural:

Pam Seagle -- who later swam from a wing to a raft -- grabbed the seat in front of her despite seeing others grab their ankles. "I'm not that flexible," Seagle said.

But since the accident she has started practicing yoga.

Some passengers bent over and interlaced their fingers over their heads, which is not recommended by safety guidelines.

The contrast in bracing positions was apparent within rows: the passenger in 1A braced backward against his seat, while 1C grabbed his ankles. The man in 1C fractured his sternum, although it was not clear at what point the injury occurred.

Campbell received "a bad bump" on his head, which he suspects happened on impact.

Lockie, who had stuck her head between her knees, lost her glasses upon impact. She eventually jumped into the raft that Campbell and Sullenberger ended up in.

"It was very traumatic," she said, "and it still is."


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