US Airways Flight 1549's emergency landing on the Hudson had to be one of the most extraordinary accident sites in the history of aviation: The Hudson River — which slices through a famously-congested chunk of real estate, suddenly transformed into a runway paved with water.
What’s even more extraordinary is that this time, instead of only looking at what went wrong, air accident investigators will also be studying what went right. Because plenty did, beginning with the pilot’s actions.
“Pilots around the world were cheering for this guy because we all know what it took to do what he did,” says Tom Casey, a former pilot for American Airlines about US Airways pilot Chesley B. Sullenberger III.
According to Casey, Sullenberger did everything he could possibly do in a very short period of time. “He did it magnificently,” he adds.
In the words of Sullenberger’s wife Lorrie, “Sully,” as he is called by his friends, is “a pilot’s pilot.”
If anyone could handle a crisis, his friends and colleagues said, it was Sully Sullenberger. He once flew fighter jets and runs his own safety consulting company.
Sullenberger and his co-pilot, Jeff Skiles, had a crisis on their hands Thursday, apparently because a flock of birds knocked out both of the Airbus A320's engines.
Casey said that while he’s experienced bird strikes as a pilot, what Sullenberger and his co-pilot ran into was more like “a flock of bowling balls.”
Ditching the plane
Sullenberg had to think fast: With both engines dead and no power, he quickly realized he was going to have to bring the plane down on the water. Every pilot trains for a ditching, but very few have ever had to pull one off.
“It’s something no pilot ever really want to confront,” says Casey.
But that last resort looked like Sullenberger’s only resort as his Airbus lost power and altitude. By all accounts, he pulled it off flawlessly, gliding his Airbus into the water tail-first, exactly as the manuals outlined. And that’s a big reason the plane didn’t break up.
“The way he set the plane down, it certainly felt wonderfully nose up—which gave us the shot,” said passenger Billy Campbell.
But even though the fuselage was sealed before the plane landed, Campbell says the water came into the plane quickly. “Within 20 to 30 seconds, water was up to my knees. And I continued to see it coming in.”
Campbell describes a flight attendant trying to open the back door, but couldn’t get it open. This was actually fortunate, because if the door had opened, experts say the plane would have sunk fast. Instead what happened turned into part of the miracle: the flight attendant began ushering her passengers forward.
According to Casey, “This crew was disciplined. They got those people out of their seats, out of the escape hatches, onto the wing like, it seemed to me, they were just like school children in a fire drill.”
Luck on his side
The pilot of Flight 1549 has become an instant hero and it looks as if he did everything right. He had skill on his side—but he also had luck. Lots of it.
Because no matter how skillful the pilot, an accident like this could so easily have ended in catastrophe.
Pilot Sullenberger’s first stroke of luck? Timing. If those two engines had shut down seconds earlier — or even later — the outcome could have been very different. For one thing, many passengers were apparently still strapped in.
“And there weren’t any food carts [that] needed to be stowed,” adds Casey.
The second piece of luck? The weather. There were no winds or waves.
“It was fortunate that the Hudson River was smooth,” says Casey. “If it was in the Atlantic, the waves and swells probably would have resulted in something different. There are just so many variables that could have taken place.”
And something else made Jan. 15 a very lucky day for 155 people — the fact that the pilot decided on a water landing. There were no obstacles directly in his path, but there were lots of boats nearby to act as first responders.
“The Hudson River gets an awful lot of traffic,” says Casey. “You have maritime traffic, you have helicopters, you have private planes... So he didn’t have time to negotiate a path for himself. Everybody has to get out of his way — if in fact there were people in his way.”
When they re-write the textbooks and the training manuals—as they probably will after Thursday’s miracle on the Hudson—they may write this: that Pilot Sullenberger and his crew didn’t need that second chance.
They did just fine with one.