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Jet's Nonfatal Crash in Hudson River Points to Increased Aviation Safety

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National Transportation Safety Board investigators brought in a giant crane and a barge Friday to help pull a US Airways jetliner from the Hudson River. Investigators are also focusing on recovering the black box. Video by AP

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By Del Quentin Wilber and Sholnn Freeman
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, January 17, 2009

The heroic actions of the pilots of a US Airways jet that ditched in the Hudson River in New York on Thursday highlighted what safety experts say is a broader trend in aviation: The system has never been so safe, and accidents have never been so survivable.

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Crediting advances in technology, airplane design, and the training of pilots and flight attendants, experts say people are far more likely to avoid accidents or survive them than at any time in the jet age. Fatal accident rates have plummeted in the past decade, and in the past two years, not a single passenger on a U.S. commercial flight died in an accident, an unprecedented stretch. In 1995 and 1996, in contrast, nearly 500 passengers died in plane crashes.

"It's getting to the point now where we can't even pull up usable statistics because you are dividing into zero," said Bill Voss, president of the Flight Safety Foundation, a nonprofit group that promotes aviation safety.

All 155 passengers and crew members survived Thursday's crash of US Airways Flight 1549 after the crew glided the Charlotte-bound Airbus A320 to safety in the icy waters of the Hudson and expertly evacuated passengers to a flotilla of rescue boats. Yesterday, investigators with the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) began looking into why both engines of the plane failed, apparently after an encounter with a flock of birds within minutes of takeoff from La Guardia Airport.

Harsh conditions in the river yesterday impeded the search for the plane's critical data and voice recorders, known as the black boxes, and for the missing engines.

Kitty Higgins, the NTSB member in charge of the on-scene investigation, said both engines are believed to have detached as the plane was pulled along by the river's strong currents. The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey are keeping a section of the river closed until the engine is found.

Divers working with the NTSB attempted to reach the cockpit recorders in the tail end of the plane but were unsuccessful. Their work was made more difficult because the aircraft is almost completely submerged except for a wing and part of the tail.

An NTSB official said the river's frigid temperature, heavy currents and low visibility made it "treacherous" for divers. Workers this morning were expected to attempt to pull the entire aircraft frame from the water, then carry it by barge to another location, where the investigation would continue.

"The hope is to be able to lift it out in one piece," Higgins said. "It may be possible. It will take a lot of good help and a lot of expertise."

The NTSB also hopes to begin discussions today with pilot Chesley B. "Sully" Sullenberger III and co-pilot Jeffrey Skiles, who are credited with calmly handling the crash and narrowly avoiding the Bronx and Midtown Manhattan, both populous areas.

Sullenberger considered making an emergency landing at a small New Jersey airport but decided to land on the water, according to two sources familiar with the investigation. Ditching is so rare that pilots do not even practice it in sophisticated simulators.

But Sullenberger, an experienced pilot who also lectures on airline safety, apparently followed all of the theories and classroom training about how to do it correctly, said John Cox, a former US Airways pilot and former safety investigator of the Air Line Pilots Association. Sullenberger slowed the plane down, kept its nose up and allowed it to settle onto the water as gently as possible, Cox said.


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