WASHINGTON — The air traffic controller who handled Flight 1549 thought ditching in the Hudson River amounted to a death sentence for all aboard. Now the veteran pilot who pulled off the ditching safely says harsh pay cuts are driving experienced pilots from the cockpit.
"People don't survive landings on the Hudson River," 10-year veteran controller Patrick Harten told a House subcommittee Tuesday in his first public description of his conversations with the pilots who were flying the jetliner that lost power in both jets when it hit Canada geese after takeoff from New York's LaGuardia Airport.
"I thought it was his own death sentence," Harten said of the moment when US Airways pilot Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger radioed that he was going into the river. Defying the odds, all 155 people aboard survived the Jan. 15 water landing.
Sullenberger, a 58-year-old who joined a US Airways predecessor in 1980, told the House aviation subcommittee that his pay has been cut 40 percent in recent years and his pension has been terminated and replaced with a promise "worth pennies on the dollar" from the federally created Pension Benefit Guaranty Corp. These cuts followed a wave of airline bankruptcies after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks that were compounded by the current recession, he said.
"The bankruptcies were used by some as a fishing expedition to get what they could not get in normal times," Sullenberger said of the airlines. He said the problems began with the deregulation of the industry in the 1970s.
The reduced compensation has placed "pilots and their families in an untenable financial situation," Sullenberger said. "I do not know a single professional airline pilot who wants his or her children to follow in their footsteps."
Testimonies on crash, industry
The subcommittee of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee heard from the crew of Flight 1549, the air traffic controller who handled the flight and aviation experts to examine what safety lessons could be learned from the accident.
Sullenberger's copilot, Jeffrey B. Skiles, said that unless federal laws are revised to improve labor-management relations, "experienced crews in the cockpit will be a thing of the past." And Sullenberger added that without experienced pilots "we will see negative consequences to the flying public."
Sullenberger himself has started a consulting business to help make ends meet. Skiles added, "For the last six years, I have worked seven days a week between my two jobs just to maintain a middle class standard of living."
Controller Harten riveted the hearing with his account of the 3.5 minutes during which he spoke with the crippled jetliner's pilots after the bird strike at an altitude of 2,750 feet.
When Sullenberger said he couldn't make it either back to LaGuardia or to Teterboro Airport in New Jersey and would ditch in the the Hudson River that separates New York and New Jersey, Harten testified, "I believed at that moment I was going to be the last person to talk to anyone on that plane alive."
But Sullenberger safely glided the Airbus A320 into the river near ferry boats that picked the passengers off the planes wings before it sank in the icy waters.
Harten, who has spent his entire career at the radar facility in Westbury, N.Y., that handles air traffic within 40 miles of three major airports, struggled vainly to help get the airliner safely to a landing strip.
Making lightning-quick decisions, Harten communicated with 14 other entities in the three minutes after the bird strike as he diverted other aircraft and advised controllers elsewhere to hold aircraft and clear runways for 1549.
First, Harten tried to get the plane to return to LaGuardia Airport, asking the airport's tower to clear runway 13. But Sullenberger calmly reported: "We're unable."
Then Harten offered another LaGuardia runway. Again, Sullenberger reported, "Unable." He said he might be able to make Teterboro Airport in New Jersey.
But when Harten directed Sullenberger to turn onto a heading for Teterboro, the pilot responded: "We can't do it .... We're going to be in the Hudson."
"I asked him to repeat himself even though I heard him just fine," said Harten. "I simply could not wrap my mind around those words."
'Hit by a bus'
At that moment, Harten said he lost radio contact with flight and was certain it "had gone down."
Afterward, Harten said he told his wife, "I felt like I had been hit by a bus."
NTSB investigators have said bird remains found in both engines of the downed plane have been identified as Canada geese.
Sullenberger and Skiles said anyone who's spent much time in cockpits has encountered bird strikes but that this one was exceptionally severe in knocking out both engines. Some gulls don't even dent the airplane, Skiles said, but this "was a bigger bird than I've ever hit before."
The crew and passengers of a helicopter that crashed en route to an oil platform on Jan. 4 weren't as lucky. The National Transportation Safety Board reported Monday that investigators have found evidence birds were involved in the accident near Morgan City, La., that killed eight of nine people aboard.
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