Hudson plane's performance praised

June 10, 2009 11:21:19 AM PDT
When US Airways Flight 1549 splashed into the Hudson River in January, the fuselage ruptured, sending water gushing into the cabin. Passengers, some with water up to their necks, struggled to reach exits. There weren't enough life rafts for everyone because two rafts in the rear of the plane were underwater. Nevertheless, the performance of the Airbus A320 was praised by witnesses at the National Transportation Safety Board hearing Wednesday as a key factor in the survival of all 155 people aboard.

  • CLICK HERE for excerpts of cockpit and radio flight communications.

  • CLICK HERE for AP photos of the plane splashdown.

  • CLICK HERE for more images from the Miracle on the Hudson.

    The plane descended into the Hudson at a rate more than three times what the structure of the A320 was designed to withstand on impact with water, and yet the plane remained mostly intact, expert witnesses told the board during the second of a three-day hearing on safety concerns that have arisen from the Jan. 15 accident.

    Besides the ruptured fuselage, an engine also separated from a wing and sank to the bottom of the river. But the fuel tanks remained attached, witnesses said, which helped to keep the plane afloat long enough for the passengers and crew to be rescued. Jet fuel is more bouyant than water.

    "I think the performance of the airframe was instrumental in the survival of the occupants," said Jeff Gardlin, an aerospace engineer with the Federal Aviation Administration.

    Despite the near catastrophe, Airbus officials were clearly proud of the plane's performance.

    "The structure did its job. It protected the passsengers. I am certainly satisifed," said David Fitzsimmons, a senior structure expert for the French aircraft manufacturer.

    The skills of Flight 1549's pilots - Captain Chesley Sullenberger and First Officer Jeffrey Skiles - were lauded by experts as a nearly perfect response to two situations that most pilots never confront separately, and certainly not together: The failure of both the plane's engines at once and a forced water landing.

    Flight 1549 struck a flock of Canada geese shortly after taking off from New York's LaGuardia Airport, sucking birds into both engines. The plane was at about 2,800 and less than five miles from LaGuardia. Sullenberger told the board on Tuesday that he didn't try to return to the airport or try to reach other airports across the river in New Jersey because he thought, "I cannot afford to be wrong."

    Instead of risking a crash in a densely populated area, he glided the plane into a landing near Manhattan's ferry terminals, to increase the chances of rescue. In the three and a half minutes that passed between the striking the geese and hitting the water, the pilots attempted to go through an emergency procedures checklist as swiftly as they could.

    Even though they weren't able to complete the checklist, it was remarkable that the pilots were able to work their way down the list far enough to attempt restarting both engines, witnesses said.

    The procedures are written with an emergency at higher altitudes in mind, typically over 10,000 feet where there is more time to correct a problem, they said.

    Asked to describe the workload inside the cockpit in such a situation, Airbus experimental test pilot Terry Lutz said: "Fairly intense - the word 'demanding' is probably a bit understated."

    When the plane entered the water, its wings were perfectly level, witnesses said. Had one wing entered the water before the other it could have caused the plane to flip over.

    Lutz said he has studied the risks of the alternatives that were available to Sullenberger besides a river ditching.

    "I can say with certainty the greatest risk would have been trying to return to an airport. Making the (river landing) was the proper choice," Lutz said.