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As Flight 1549 Emergency Landing Probe Continues, Pilot and Crew Are Praised

January 16, 2009 at 6:10 PM EDT
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As more details into Thursday's emergency landing of US Airways Flight 1549 emerge, aviation experts praised pilot Chesley Sullenberger 3rd for his smooth handling of the airplane following its double engine loss. An aviation expert and a pilot discuss the extraordinary water landing.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Government investigators are beginning the painstaking work of finding out what went wrong with U.S. Airways Flight 1549, still submerged at the southern tip of Manhattan.

But, for the 150 passengers who survived the accident in the Hudson River yesterday, there is no mystery about what went right.

PASSENGER: You have to give it to the pilot, man. He made a hell of a landing.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Today, the New York tabloid press called him a superhero. Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger, 57 years old, and a veteran fighter pilot, is being widely praised.

MICHAEL BLOOMBERG (I), Mayor of New York: His brave actions have inspired millions of people in the city and millions more around the world. I have a key to the city right here. This is what it looks like, for those of you that have never seen one. And I’m going to hold on to it until we have the opportunity to present it to the incredibly brave pilot, co-pilot, and the crew of U.S. Airways Flight 1549.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The plane took off from New York’s La Guardia Airport and headed northwest over the city. Within minutes, it was in trouble, after reportedly flying through a flock of birds that crippled both engines of the Airbus A-320 jetliner.

PASSENGER: Less than two minutes up in the air, there was a big boom. Everyone smelled smoke.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Now flying at below than 4,000 feet, the pilot quickly turned to avoid populated areas. He considered diverting to local airports, but then changed course. He avoided the George Washington Bridge on Manhattan’s West Side, and positioned the plane over the Hudson for a water landing.

PASSENGER: I just heard the pilot, “Brace yourself for impact.” You know, how do you brace yourself for impact?

EYEWITNESS: We just saw the airplane gliding in the air, and it just hit the Hudson River. It hit the Hudson River very hard. When it hit the Hudson River, it just looked — looked like a volcano exploded. There was a lot of water up in the air. Then, I called 911.

JUDY WOODRUFF: What followed was a largely calm and controlled evacuation of the passengers, led by the air crew, as ferry boats and tour vessels came to their aid.

BILL ZUHOSKI, Passenger: The water was coming up so fast in the back, I ripped all of my clothes off, thinking, you know, I would be lighter. I might have to swim.

MAN: They were standing on the wings. And there were people in the water, a couple lifeboats they already had out. So, we were the first boat to go over there and start pulling people out of the water.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The authorities have asked the pilot and crew not to talk to the news media, for now. But the pilot’s wife and two daughters appeared outside their home in California this morning.

LORRIE SULLENBERGER, Pilot’s Wife: We are very grateful that everyone is off the airplane safely. And that was really what my husband asked to convey to everyone.

And, of course, we are very proud of dad.

My husband has said over the years that it is highly unlikely for any pilot to ever have an incident in his career, let alone something like this.

So, I’m not afraid. It never crosses my mind. And, like everyone else, I was stunned when he called and said, there’s been an incident. And, even then, I assumed, you know, it was a tug that maybe had bumped the airplane. I had — you know, your mind just never goes to something like this.

QUESTION: But, to hear the praise for him, I’m sure — well, you say it’s well-deserved praise?

LORRIE SULLENBERGER: Oh, absolutely.

QUESTION: What kind of a man is he?

LORRIE SULLENBERGER: He — I have said for a long time that he’s a — he’s a pilot’s pilot, and he loves the art of the airplane. So…

JUDY WOODRUFF: That pilot’s pilot is called a humble man. He and his quick actions are already being immortalized in cyberspace. The social networking site Facebook is filling up with homages to him from people around the world.

Water landings extremely rare

JUDY WOODRUFF: For more on all this, we turn to John Wiley, a pilot for more than four decades with the Air Force and commercial airlines -- he's a contributing editor to Business and Commercial Aviation magazine -- and Greg Feith, a former investigator for the National Transportation Safety Board. He's investigated numerous accidents. And he is a pilot as well.

Thank you both for being with us.

Greg Feith, to you first.

As somebody who knows air safety, how extraordinary was this landing?

GREGORY FEITH, Former Member, National Transportation Safety Board: Well, from an accident investigation standpoint, it was very extraordinary.

Having spent over 20 years at the National Transportation Safety Board, the only time I got called or the board got called was when there was a real disaster, usually involving fatalities. So, this is a great story.

JUDY WOODRUFF: John Wiley, as a pilot, what does it look like to you, how rare?

JOHN WILEY, Pilot: Well, it's beyond the realm of contemplation.

You just -- you go through various drills in the simulators. You have engines fail. You have systems fail. You don't have a double engine failure on takeoff that winds up ditching in a cold -- a cold river, the Hudson.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, take us, John Wiley, through the decisions that this pilot, Mr. Sullenberger, had to make. The engine goes out. What -- what -- what is the process at that point?

JOHN WILEY: Well, it's another day at the office.

Sully has cleaned the airplane up. He is at about 3,200 feet, according to flight track. The flaps have been retracted. The gear has been retracted. And the airplane is clean and accelerating, and, all of a sudden, everything changes.

There has to be a moment of disbelief, that this is not really happening. Both of your engines are failing. Your airplane is dying underneath you. Your resources are diminishing rapidly, and you have got to make an incredible, but right, series of decisions.

He looked around. They were apparently cleared to come back to La Guardia. Sully said unable. It's a short runway at La Guardia of 7,000 feet. They said possibly Teterboro, which is also in proximity. Sully also said unable. Again, he is summing up what he has got to work with. And it winds up that the only thing left is the Hudson.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, you are saying that truly, evidently, was his only option?

JOHN WILEY: I don't see how -- because, one thing is, is, when are you that high, you have got to dissipate all that energy before you can get the airplane on the ground safely. Can you stop the airplane?

La Guardia sits in the middle of a cemetery and the city itself. You have got all those buildings around there. Somewhere, it clicked, the possibility, I would think, that you are going to place a lot of people in danger trying to land at La Guardia, same thing for Teterboro.

Pilot made extraordinary decisions

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, John Wiley, just continuing with you, what -- how hard is it to bring a plane down under those circumstances, two engines gone, again, starting at that altitude, and -- and hitting that narrow course that you are describing?

JOHN WILEY: Well, Sully is an experienced aviator. If you look at his history, you will find out he has been with the company for over -- since 1980.

He is also a glider pilot. And you have to realize that, when you are going through abnormal circumstances, one of the things that you are trying to do is get as much normal back as you can.

The engines are gone. The airplane is now essentially a glider. Sully's looking around, I would imagine, to find out where he can put this thing down with the least amount of impact and also the least amount of danger.

He's a skill aviator. He has flown a lot of different airplanes. I have met Sully a number of times and worked with him briefly. We're not buds or close friends, but we are good acquaintances. He is what we would call a good stick, a good, good aviator.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, Greg Feith, how much did it complicate his job that, yes, he was going down in a river, but you had bridges there, you had current; there were boats?

GREGORY FEITH: Oh, this -- the decisions that this captain had to make were extraordinary, because he didn't have a lot of time. He didn't have a lot of options.

And, as John said, I mean, there came a -- a point where that crew decided that their only option, because they weren't going to make it back to an airport, was to put it down in the water. They stayed committed to that option and did what they could to salvage a very bad situation.

They -- they just followed their training. And -- and, as John said, it comes down to airmanship, skills, abilities, knowledge and experience. And maybe a lesser experienced pilot may not have accomplished the success that Sully did in this particular event.

Birds are a growing problem

JUDY WOODRUFF: But, in terms, Greg Feith, in terms of bringing that plane in, how different landing it on the river from at an airport, on a runway?

GREGORY FEITH: Well, there is -- there is quite a bit of difference.

One, the airplane is going to be configured differently. Unlike landing on a runway, you are not going to be putting the landing gear down. You are not going to be using the full extent of the trailing-edge wing flaps to slow the airplane down.

And, of course, the pilot is going to want to hold the aircraft off the water for as long as possible, which means getting the airplane into a higher pitch attitude, dissipating that energy and then letting the airplane settle into the water, so that you minimize the structural damage, hoping it will -- it will stay intact, and then letting the airplane just settle in, and then dissipate that energy, without a real fast shock, if you will, to stopping the airplane and causing it maybe to go up on its nose and submerge.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And doing it before you reach the George Washington Bridge.

John Wiley, they're -- obviously, they are investigating the -- whether the plane hit a flock of birds. How big a problem are birds?

JOHN WILEY: Well, first off, you are on the East Coast flyway, and you're talking about big birds.

The analogy I would like to use is, you are using your food processor to process carrots or maybe some other small vegetable. Take a handful of gravel and then drop it in your food processor, and you start getting an idea of what is happening.

These engines are certified to swallow water and ice and a bird. They are not certified to swallow lots of birds at one time. So, once you have all that gravel in your food processor, it starts breaking down. You start losing the engine. Again, you are getting this real-time information in the cockpit, and there's got to be a moment of disbelief.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, from your perspective, Greg Feith, what about the issue of birds and commercial -- or aviation, all aviation, for that matter?

GREGORY FEITH: Well, with birds, birds have been a problem for aviators for quite a long time.

And now we have more airplanes in the sky, and, of course, more birds. A lot of the mitigation that has taken place has all been ground-based. Airports are using canons, dogs, falcons, owls, and a variety of other tools to try and scare the birds away.

But we haven't really put a lot of that same effort into putting a tool or a device on the aircraft that could be used to dissipate birds, or at least try to keep birds from getting in close proximity to the airplane, maybe an ultrasonic type device or something like that. And I think that is what the NTSB is going to look at with this accident, is, what can be used in the future to -- to prevent this from happening again?

Crew functioned as a team

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, in fact, we should emphasize that the NTSB is saying they are -- they are investigating that. It is not known for certain that that -- that that was the cause.

Just to both of you -- John Wiley, back to you -- what about what can be learned from an incident like this? Is this unique, or can something be applied in the future?

JOHN WILEY: All accidents are unique, but there will be a lot of lessons that will come out of this.

It's fortunate that, apparently, this crew had operated a couple of legs before. And, so, they had moved from a group of individuals into a team. And this is extremely important. Teams achieve things that individuals cannot. And the tone that was set by Sullenberger to form this crew, the first officer and the flight attendants became an exemplary group.

Their mode of operation, their calmness and their attitude affected the people, so that they were able to get 155 people off this airplane with minor injuries. That is extraordinary.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, it is extraordinary, any way you look at it.

And we're going to leave it there and thank you both.

John Wiley, Greg Feith, thank you both.

JOHN WILEY: Thank you.

GREGORY FEITH: You're welcome.