US Airways Flight 1549 (15th January 2009)

US Airways Flight 1549 was a scheduled commercial passenger flight from New York City to Charlotte, North Carolina, that, on January 15, 2009, ditched in the Hudson River adjacent to Manhattan six minutes after departing from LaGuardia Airport.

While on its initial climb out, the Airbus A320 struck a flock of Canada Geese which resulted in an immediate almost complete loss of thrust from both engines. When the aircrew determined that the plane would be unable to safely reach any airfield from its location just northeast of the George Washington Bridge, they turned it southbound and glided over the river, then ditched the airliner virtually intact near the USS Intrepid Museum in midtown Manhattan. After the 155 occupants safely evacuated the partially submerged and sinking plane they were all rescued by nearby watercraft.

The entire crew of Flight 1549 was later awarded the Master’s Medal of the Guild of Air Pilots and Air Navigators. The award citation read, “This emergency ditching and evacuation, with the loss of no lives, is a heroic and unique aviation achievement.”

Flight designations, route, and crew

US Airways Flight 1549 (also designated under a Star Alliance codeshare agreement as United Airlines Flight 1919) was a domestic route from New York City’s LaGuardia Airport (LGA) to Charlotte/Douglas, North Carolina, with direct onward service to Seattle-Tacoma in Washington.

On January 15, 2009, the flight was cleared for takeoff from Runway 4 at LaGuardia at 3:24:56 p.m. The crew made their first report after becoming airborne at 3:25:51 as being at 700 feet and climbing. There were 150 passengers and five crew members, including the captain, first officer, and three flight attendants, on board.

The captain was Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger, 57, a former fighter pilot who had been an airline pilot since leaving the Air Force in 1980. He is also a safety expert and a glider pilot. The first officer was Jeffrey B. Skiles, 49, who was on his first flight in the Airbus A320 since passing the training course to fly the type. The flight attendants were Donna Dent, Doreen Welsh, and Sheila Dail.

As is often the case when a regularly scheduled commercial flight is involved in an accident, use of the flight’s number, 1549, was discontinued for subsequent operations of the carrier’s afternoon LGA-CLT-SEA service. On January 16, 2009, the route was redesignated US Airways Flight 1543, and on February 12, 2009, the LGA-CLT leg became Flight 1867 when its equipment was changed to an Airbus A321.

Ditching

First Officer Skiles was at the controls of the flight when it took off to the northeast from Runway 4 at 3:25 p.m., and was the first to notice a formation of birds approaching the aircraft about two minutes later while passing through an altitude of about 3,200 feet (980 m on its initial climb out to 15,000 feet. The aircraft collided with the birds at 3:27:01. The windscreen quickly turned dark brown and several loud thuds were heard. Both engines ingested birds and immediately lost almost all thrust. Capt. Sullenberger took the controls, while Skiles attempted to restart the engines and began going through a three-page emergency procedures checklist.

At 3:27:36, using the call sign “Cactus 1539”, the flight radioed air traffic controllers at New York Terminal Radar Approach Control (TRACON) “Hit birds. We lost thrust in both engines. Returning back towards LaGuardia.” Passengers and cabin crew later reported hearing “very loud bangs” in both engines and seeing flaming exhaust, then silence from the engines and smelling the odor of unburned fuel in the cabin. Responding to the captain”s report of a bird strike, controller Patrick Harten gave the flight a heading to return to LaGuardia and told him that he could land to the southeast on Runway 13. Sullenberger responded that he was unable.

Sullenberger asked if they could attempt an emergency landing in New Jersey, mentioning Teterboro Airport in Bergen County as a possibility; air traffic controllers quickly contacted Teterboro and gained permission for a landing on runway 1. However, Sullenberger told controllers that “We can”t do it”, and that “We”re gonna be in the Hudson,” making clear his intention to bring the plane down on the Hudson River due to a lack of altitude. Air traffic control at LaGuardia reported seeing the aircraft pass less than 900 feet (270 m) above the George Washington Bridge. About 90 seconds before touchdown, the captain announced, “Brace for impact,” and the flight attendants instructed the passengers how to do so.

The plane ended its six-minute flight at 3:31 pm with an unpowered ditching while heading south at about 150 miles per hour (130 kn; 240 km/h) in the middle of the North River section of the Hudson River roughly abeam 50th Street (near the Intrepid Sea-Air-Space Museum) in Manhattan and Port Imperial in Weehawken, New Jersey. Sullenberger said in an interview on CBS television that his training prompted him to choose a ditching location near operating boats so as to maximize the chance of rescue. The location was near three boat terminals: two used by ferry operator NY Waterway on either side of the Hudson River and a third used by tour boat operator Circle Line. After coming to a stop in the river, the plane began drifting southward with the current.

National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) Board Member Kitty Higgins, the principal spokesperson for the on-scene investigation, said at a press conference the day after the accident that it “has to go down [as] the most successful ditching in aviation history.” “These people knew what they were supposed to do and they did it and as a result, nobody lost their life.”

Evacuation

Immediately after the A320 had been ditched in mid-river, the aircrew began evacuating the 150 passengers both on to the wings through from the four mid-cabin emergency window exits and into inflated slides deployed from the two front passenger doors while the partially submerged and slowly sinking airliner drifted down the river with the current. Two flight attendants were in the front, one in the rear. Each flight attendant in the front opened a door which was also armed to activate a slide although the one on the port side did not immediately deploy. One rear door was opened by a panicked passenger causing the aircraft to fill more quickly with water. The flight attendant in the rear who attempted to reseal the rear door was not successful in doing so, she told CBS News. She also urged passengers to move forward by climbing over seats to escape the rising water within the cabin. One passenger was in a wheelchair. Having twice walked the length of the cabin to confirm that no one remained inside after the plane had been evacuated, the captain was the last person to leave the aircraft. Evacuees, some wearing life-vests, waited for rescue on the partly submerged slides, knee-deep in icy river water. Others stood on the wings or, fearing an explosion, swam away from the plane. Air temperature at the time was about 20 °F (-7 °C), and the water was 36 °F (2 °C).

Rescue

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The plane being recovered from the river during the night of January 17

Local commercial vessels from the NY Waterway and Circle Line fleets responded almost immediately to the emergency. NY Waterway ferry Thomas Jefferson, commanded by Captain Vincent Lombardi, was first on the scene arriving at the side of the plane just four minutes after the ditching. NY Waterway ferry Governor Thomas H. Kean, under the command of 20-year-old Captain Brittany Catanzaro, was the second rescue craft to arrive reaching the plane a few minutes later. Catanzaro reported to radio station WNYC that she and her crew used a Jason”s cradle to bring people who were wet onto her boat. Aircraft captain Sullenberger stated in CBS News interviews that he advised the ferry crew to rescue passengers on the wing before the passengers in the inflatable slides, as the inflatable slides provided a relatively higher level of safety. Time-stamped video from a United States Coast Guard (USCG) surveillance camera shows that the first of these vessels, a ferry boat, reached the plane at 3:35 pm (four minutes after the ditching) and began rescuing the 155 occupants. By this time many passengers were already standing on the wings or in the inflated evacuation slides of the floating plane. The slides eventually detatched from the fuselage to form life rafts. At one stage, as the plane moved in the strong ebb tide current, passengers on one of the slides, fearing that the stern of the ferry boat would crush them, had to shout to the ferry boat pilot to steer away.

Within minutes, vessels from the New York City Fire Department (FDNY), New York City Police Department (NYPD) and the USCG, and a privately owned former Coast Guard Buoy Tender were on scene to help with the rescue and recovery effort. All of the passengers and flight crew were rescued safely.

The FDNY sent four marine units and rescue divers. On land, FDNY declared a level III (All Hands) emergency and mobilized their Major Emergency Response, Logistical Support Units and had 35 ambulances ready for patients coming off the flight. About 140 FDNY firefighters responded to docks near the crash. The NYPD sent squad cars, helicopters, vessels, and rescue divers from the Aviation Unit and Harbor Unit.

In addition, about 30 other ambulances were made available by other organizations, including several hospital-based ambulances (St. Vincent, St. Barnabas). Various agencies also provided medical help on the Weehawken side of the river. Two mutual aid helicopters responded to the West 30th Street Heliport, one from the Nassau County Police and another from the New Jersey State Police. New York Water Taxi sent boats to the scene but did not take part in the rescue.

Aftermath

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N106US on display at Carolinas Aviation Museum

At 4:55 p.m. fire crews began to stand down. At 5:07 p.m. Doug Parker, CEO of US Airways, issued an official statement during a press conference in Tempe, Arizona, in which he confirmed that the flight had been involved in an accident.

The flight crew, particularly Captain Sullenberger, were widely praised for their actions during the incident including by New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and New York Governor David Paterson who opined, “We had a ”Miracle on 34th Street.” I believe now we have had a ”Miracle on the Hudson”.” Outgoing U.S. President George W. Bush said he was “inspired by the skill and heroism of the flight crew,” and he also praised the emergency responders and volunteers. Then President-elect Barack Obama said that everyone was proud of Sullenberger’s “heroic and graceful job in landing the damaged aircraft,” and thanked the plane’s crew, whom he invited to attend his inauguration as President in Washington, D.C., five days later, and those on the scene in New York who helped ensure the safety of all 155 people aboard.

Following the rescue, the plane remained afloat though partially submerged, and was quickly moored to a pier near the World Financial Center in Lower Manhattan, roughly 4 miles (6 km) downstream from where it had ditched. The left engine had detached from the plane during the ditching and was recovered several days later from the river bottom, 65 feet (20 m) below the surface. The right engine was initially thought to have detached, but was later found to be still attached to the aircraft although much of its nacelle was missing. On January 17, the aircraft, which was written off, was removed from the Hudson River and placed on a barge. The aircraft was then moved to New Jersey for examination.

The passengers on the plane each received a letter of apology, $5000 in compensation for lost baggage and a refund of the ticket price.

Accident investigation

Shortly after the event, Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) spokeswoman Laura Brown said that the plane may have been hit by birds. A National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) Go Team (typically comprising specialists in fields relating to the incident), led by Senior Air Safety Investigator Robert Benzon, was dispatched to New York. The preliminary report of the incident, published on January 16, states that the aircraft went down following a bird strike. This conclusion, and the simultaneous loss of thrust in both engines, was confirmed by preliminary analysis of the Cockpit Voice Recorder and the Flight Data Recorder which were both recovered from the airframe by the NTSB when it was lifted out of the river on January 18.

The next day, reports surfaced that the same airplane and same flight had experienced a similar but less severe compressor stall on January 13. During that flight, passengers were told they might have to make an emergency landing. However, the affected engine was restarted and the flight continued to Charlotte. The NTSB later reported that this engine surge had been caused by a faulty temperature sensor, which was replaced, and that the engine was undamaged by the event, which allowed the plane to return to service.

On January 21, the NTSB noted that organic debris, including a single feather, as well as evidence of soft-body damage, was found in the right engine. The left engine was recovered from the river on January 23 and, like the right engine, was missing a large portion of its housing. On initial examination the NTSB reported that while missing obvious organic matter, it too had evidence of soft body impact, and “had dents on both the spinner and inlet lip of the engine cowling. Five booster inlet guide vanes are fractured and eight outlet guide vanes are missing.” Both engines were to be sent to the manufacturer”s Cincinnati, Ohio facility for teardown and examination. On January 31, the plane was moved to a secure storage facility in Kearny, New Jersey, for the remainder of the investigation. The NTSB confirmed that bird remains had been found in both engines. The bird debris was later identified as Canada Geese through DNA testing. The typical weight of these birds is well above the limits the engines were designed to withstand on impact.

On February 5, the FAA released audio tape recordings and transcripts of its internal and broadcast ATC communications relating to the accident. The entire exchange between Flight 1549 and air traffic control relating to the emergency lasted less than two minutes.

As the accident A320 was assembled by the Airbus Division of the European aerospace consortium EADS at the Airbus headquarters manufacturing facilities in Toulouse, France, under the provisions of ICAO Annex 13 both the European Aviation Safety Agency (the European counterpart of the FAA) and the Bureau d”Enquêtes et d”Analyses pour la sécurité de l”Aviation Civile (the French counterpart of the NTSB) became active participants in the accident investigation, with technical assistance provided by Airbus Industrie and GE Aviation/Snecma as manufacturers of the airframe and engines respectively.

Flight 1549 is the fifth take-off/departure phase accident involving a commercial air carrier at LaGuardia since the field opened in 1939 which resulted in the write off of the accident aircraft. Of those, it is also the third involving the hull loss of a US Airways/USAir plane.

Useful Links

Twitter picture of Flight 1549 by Janis Krums widely circulated immediately following the crash

List of accidents and incidents involving commercial aircraft

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