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Inspectors find flaws in Hudson River plane landing

The National Transportation Safety Board applauds the skill of the flight crew, but suggests changes to procedures and equipment.

May 05, 2010|By Kim Geiger, Tribune Washington Bureau

Reporting from Washington —

The National Transportation Safety Board on Tuesday issued a series of new safety recommendations based on lessons from the landing of a US Airways plane in the Hudson River last year.

Though the board applauded the skill of the flight crew, it said there were problems that could have turned the incident into a tragedy.

The Airbus A320 was equipped with inflatable life vests, lifelines and slide rafts, which officials said were crucial to passengers' safe escape. But in some instances, the equipment was poorly positioned and didn't function as intended.

"The success of this ditching mostly resulted from a series of fortuitous circumstances," said investigator Jason Fedok, who emphasized that the proximity of emergency workers and boats in the New York area made for a swift rescue.

The Charlotte, N.C.-bound flight took off from LaGuardia Airport on the afternoon of Jan. 15, 2009. About two minutes after takeoff, a flock of Canada geese collided with the engines, causing them to lose almost all thrust and forcing pilot Chesley Sullenberger to pull off a desperate water landing on the Hudson.

All 150 passengers and five crew members survived. But investigators said that some of the safety and contingency plans for such an event were either ignored or could not be performed in the three minutes of chaos that ensued.

The flight crew lost valuable time attempting to relight the engines after the collision had occurred, unaware that there was no hope of restoring them to working use. When the decision was made to land the plane on the Hudson, the crew did not prepare passengers for a water landing and was not able to complete the appropriate engine failure checklist.

Just two passengers were able to don life vests before the plane landed on the water. Only 19 passengers attempted to retrieve their vests, and 10 reported having difficulty doing so.

The landing also submerged two of the four slide rafts, leaving many passengers to stand on the wings of the sinking plane without protection from the frigid water.

The plane was also equipped with four lifelines to keep passengers from falling into the water, but that equipment was stowed in the front and back of the plane, where it was inaccessible to flight attendants.

In response to the shortcomings, the NTSB recommended on Tuesday that all planes, even those traveling primarily over land, be required to have life vests and flotation seat cushions for each passenger. A similar recommendation by the Federal Aviation Administration was withdrawn in 2003 "due to cost concerns," Fedok said.

The NTSB also urged a review of the "brace" position for passengers and a possible update to reflect modern airplane seat configurations. Two passengers who had assumed the brace position illustrated on the safety cards suffered shoulder fractures.

To prevent pilots from attempting to relight wrecked engines, the board advised the FAA to work with NASA and the military to devise technologies for informing the pilot of an engine's status. And the board recommended new ditching parameters — capable of being performed without engine function — for low-altitude dual-engine failure.

kim.geiger@latimes.com

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