Image: Hudson crash
Steven Day  /  AP
Airline passengers wait to be rescued on the wings of a US Airways Airbus 320 jetliner that safely ditched in the frigid waters of the Hudson River in New York on Thursday. All 155 people on board survived.
updated 1/16/2009 11:13:15 AM ET 2009-01-16T16:13:15

Four recent major airline accidents have something in common: Everyone survived.

It is part of a hard-to-quantify trend of people surviving crashes that used to be fatal, aviation safety experts said Thursday after everybody was rescued from a US Airways jet that ditched in the Hudson River.

Part of the reason is luck, but much of it is due to better crew reaction and training and sturdier planes, said experts at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

"What's amazing to me is the last few we've had, everybody's escaped," said Eric Doten, a former Federal Aviation Administration senior official and retired professor of safety at Embry-Riddle in Daytona Beach. "We've worked on survivability."

Besides Thursday's harrowing crash in New York, everyone got out of a Continental Airlines jet that skidded off the runway and then caught fire in Denver last month. A year ago, everyone escaped after a British Airways 777 crash-landed short of its runway in London.

And in July, a Qantas jetliner fell nearly 20,000 feet over the South China Sea, when an oxygen tank exploded and ripped a hole in the floor the size of a small car. It made an emergency landing and everyone survived

The United States hasn't had a major airliner fatality for two years straight, part of an overall trend of fewer major airline deaths. The last major U.S. airliner crash with many fatalities was Aug. 27, 2006, when 49 people were killed after a Comair jetliner mistakenly took off from the wrong runway in Lexington, Ky.

Even with that last fatal accident, fewer than 100 passengers have died in U.S. major airliner accidents in the past seven years combined, according to the National Transportation Safety Board.

"It's much more heartening what happened today than unnerving," said MIT statistics professor Arnold Barnett, who studies airline fatalities. "The emergencies are becoming rarer and rarer and the observed survival rate given the emergency" are going up.

Everything from manufacturing to maintenance to the crew has improved to make crashes fewer and more survivable, said David Castelveter, a spokesman for the airline industry's Air Transport Association.

"And you have seen that bear itself out" in recent accidents, he said.

Seats are stronger and hardware is better, but the key is how the flight attendants and pilots respond, said Bill Waldock, who teaches a course in crash worthiness at Embry-Riddle in Prescott, Ariz.

Video: Dad on flight: ‘It was like a roller coaster’ "People forget flight attendants are on board for one reason — that's to get people to safety as soon as possible," he said.

A quick evacuation may have prevented fatalities both in New York and Denver, he said. He cited improvements in crew training prompted by major fatal accidents.

"We kind of learned the hard way that it is critical to control what happens" in evacuation, he said.

'Deadstick' landing
One reason flight attendants are doing better might be because they are older and more senior than they used to be because few airlines have hired new people since Sept. 11, 2001, said Corey Caldwell, spokeswoman for the Association of Flight Attendants. As flight attendants get more training each year, "their confidence is easily translated into successful evacuations," she said.

And the pilots in the New York accident not only had the luck for the accident to occur at the right time, but they also had the skill to pull off a good water landing, Waldock said.

Landing in a river instead of the open ocean or the city is "almost the best case" scenario for a "deadstick" landing, Waldock said.

Barnett said: "It has to be one of the most extraordinary water landings in aviation history."

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Video: Heroes of the Hudson

  1. Transcript of: Heroes of the Hudson

    ANN CURRY, co-host: But at first now, a closer look at the heroes from the Hudson . We've got NBC 's Lester Holt , who's been really covering that part of the story. Hey, Lester , good morning.

    LESTER HOLT reporting: Good morning, Ann. You and I could sit here and talk all day about all the things that could have gone wrong. The visibility could have been poor, they couldn't seen the runway -- couldn't have seen the water, there could've been helicopters flying nearby. There was some luck, but there was also plenty of heroism and it started with the two people who were flying that airplane to safety.

    Mr. JEFF KOLODJAY (Passenger on US Airways Flight 1549): And the guy said the captain came on and says, ` Look , we're going down, brace for impact .' And everyone kind of looked at each other and said some prayers. You know. I said about five Our Fathers , five Hail Marys and we hit the water.

    HOLT: Out of time , out of altitude and out of power, Captain Chesley Sullenberger and his co-pilot had two choices, risk crashing on land in a long shot attempt to reach a runway or try what few have successfully done before, land a commercial jet in water.

    Mr. BILL ZUHOSKI (Passenger on US Airways Flight 1549): Everybody owes their lives to the pilot. He did an amazing job.

    Mayor MICHAEL BLOOMBERG (Mayor of New York City): He walked the plane twice after everybody was off and tried to verify that there was nobody else on board and assures us there were not.

    HOLT: Experience was on his side. Sullenberger is an ex-fighter pilot, 29 years with the airlines, a former Pilots Union safety chairman and accident investigator with 19,000 flight hours, who this morning other pilots are lauding.

    Mr. TOM CASEY (Former Airline Captain): It required an incredible amount of airmanship to put that plane down so it didn't break up, and it didn't break up.

    HOLT: But with the plane safely down, more heroes were about to be made. A virtual flotilla of ferry and tour boats raced to the scene as water began to fill the plane 's cabin and passengers began exiting the downed jet.

    Mr. ALAN WARREN (New York Waterway Harbormaster): We don't think, we just react, and everyone kind of knows what they do. From people in the office answering the phones to the people on the ferries, everyone steps up.

    HOLT: Coast Guard , fire and police rescuers soon join the effort. And while most of the passengers made it onto the wing or even right into waiting boats, divers had to rescue others from the freezing water.

    Unidentified Diver: When we saw that the plane started filling up with water faster and faster, and when we didn't see anybody else in there, we decided to get out, just because it wasn't safe to be in.

    HOLT: And now as the NTSB begins to look at what went wrong on that flight, everyone else seems more eager to talk about what went right.

    Mr. BRAD WENTZELL (Passenger on US Airways Flight 1549): This pilot, and if this guy doesn't get the recognition he needs...

    Unidentified Man: Yeah, it's unbelievable.

    Mr. WENTZELL: ...is the reason my daughter...

    Man: Yeah.

    Mr. WENTZELL: ...my two and a half-year-old has a dad and my wife still has a husband.

    HOLT: And among his many credits, Ann , this pilot is also a certified glider pilot . Flying an A320 not exactly like a glider, but some principles of flight remain. That couldn't have hurt him. What do they say about flying? It's hours of sheer boredom interrupted by moments of sheer terror.

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