Splashdown in the Hudson River
Friday, January 16, 2009; 2:00 PM
US Airways Flight 1549 was apparently crippled by a midair encounter with geese and ditched into the Hudson River on Thursday within minutes of takeoff from La Guardia Airport. Facing life-and-death choices, the pilot steered away from a catastrophic crash in the Bronx or in northern Manhattan, but the 155 passengers and crew soon faced new peril as their 80-ton aircraft began to sink in the river's frigid gray current.
Scrambling for the exits and carrying the helpless, they perched ankle- and then knee-deep atop the wings as an improvised armada of tour boats and ferries streamed to their rescue. It was a race to escape before the listing Airbus A320, submerged already on the starboard side, disappeared.
Doug Feaver, former aviation safety reporter for The Washington Post for many years and currently dot.comments blogger for washingtonpost.com, was online Friday, Jan. 16, at 2 p.m. ET to discuss the latest information about the crash and the investigation into the "Miracle on the Hudson."
A transcript follows.
Doug Feaver: It is not that unusual for a bird to strike an airplane and take out an engine. What is unusual is for birds to take out both engines of a twin-engine jetliner, and that's apparently what happened yesterday in New York. Twin-engine planes are certified to continue flying safely if one engine fails -- even at such a critical time as a takeoff. But if you lose both engines, extraordinary decision-making and skill are required for the result we saw yesterday.
Durango, Colo.: Hi. Thanks for taking my question. Have not aviation specialists been warning for years about the dangers of flocks of large-bodied birds? Is this incident going to provoke some action, and if so, how do you deal with the paradox of protecting habitat? We fly in and out of an airport in Cyprus that is adjacent to import flamingo (and other waterfowl) habitat. You see these bright pink birds fly across the runways all the time.
Doug Feaver: You're right about that. Aviation and wildlife specialists in the U.S. Department of Agriculture have worried about this for years. And there are bird strikes every year. Jet aircraft are required during certification to show that they can withstand a collision with a 4-pound bird. Canada geese are larger. An accident like this is often the catalyst for a much more extensive regulatory look at the many issues involved -- from aircraft certification to wildlife management around airports (no landfills nearby, for example).
20005: Has anything come out yet about the pilot's decision to opt for ditching in the Hudson instead of trying for Teterboro? While I obviously don't know the full details but I'm from up there and if he made it to mid-town once would think he could have made it to Teterboro.
Doug Feaver: I'm sure the National Transportation Safety Board has interviewed the pilot and asked about that, but I've seen nothing publicly yet. The crew didn't have a lot of time decide, but did decide against Teterboro in favor of the Hudson, if early reports are correct.
Bellingham, Wash.: Just a comment re: "miracle" on the Hudson. Seems to me it wasn't a "miracle" at all. Rather than an act of God it was a display of human professionalism and skill. A well-trained pilot kept his wits and put the plane on the water safely and out of the Bronx. Skilled, well-trained stewards managed to get everyone, men, women and children out of the plane before it sank or (God forbid) burst into flame. The passengers apparently put their own self interest aside and managed not to panic. Ferry operators, who according to the NYT actually practice at-sea rescue for this very eventuality put that training to use and got all the passengers and crew out of the icy water safely. Thinking of it as a "miracle" may sell papers and earn TV face-time for mayors but it devalues the roll of human perseverance and training. The next time any of us gets miffed about paying $199 to fly from NYC to L.A. we should think of that crew. Yesterday we saw why pilots get the big bucks and why stewards deserve the same. They are not waiters and waitresses at our beckon call but professionals deserving our attention and respect.
Doug Feaver: By all accounts the crew's performance was remarkable. Thanks for writing.
Fairfax, Va.: How hard is it to do what that pilot did and steadily bring the plane down? Was it a matter of just gliding in or were controls still operable?
Doug Feaver: A good question. Although we haven't heard from the safety board yet on what the pilots told them, it would certainly appear that they had the ability to control direction of the plane; they apparently couldn't control the engines. The water landing was textbook, and that wouldn't happen if there had been control issues.
Alexandria, Va.: Hello, News reports quote aviation experts as saying that crashes resulting from bird strikes are rare nowadays with advances in technology. Which technology, exactly? It seems to me that if birds fly into a jet engine, the engine dies, period...
Doug Feaver: Engines on jetliners are supposed to be able to survive small bird strikes. There has been much debate over the years between the Federal Aviation Administration and outside safety specialists including some at the National Transportation Safety Board over just what size of bird should be in the regulation.
Bethesda, Md.: Were there children on board?
Doug Feaver: Yes but I don't know how many. There was one television shot of a mother holding an infant.
Washington, D.C.: Every now and then I like to go out to Gravelly Point to watch the planes take off and land at DCA (Washington National Airport). Particularly in the summer, there are little old ladies down there feeding the seagulls and I just want to yell at them because the last thing anyone needs at the end of a runway is a flock of seagulls. Even though there are signs posted not to feed the birds, I've never once seen anyone down there enforcing the rule and writing tickets. Thoughts?
Doug Feaver: Well, I ride my bicycle through there all the time and see the same thing.
Herndon, Va.: I live near Dulles and heard this morning about a device that sends a sonic-boom to distract birds away from airports. I've never heard of this device before and wonder if it is something that is used and how effective it is. Also, what are the effects to humans surrounding the airport?
Doug Feaver: Both National and Dulles have used various noise-making devices to chase birds away from the ends of the runways. So do many other airports. Most aircraft bird strikes occur at relatively low altitudes. Birds are just another reason why takeoffs and landings are the most dangerous parts of any flight.
Downtown D.C.: It was curious to see all of the passengers on the wings of the plane. Is that something the crew prepares for as an option for water landings-that the plane could stay afloat for a certain amount of time?
Doug Feaver: Good question and I don't know the answer. I suspect that the rafts were filling up, the plane was sinking, and the wings were still sort of above water, so they presented an obvious place to stand while waiting for help.
Atlanta, Ga.: I used to work in airport management. Isn't there a certain design standard for jet engines that they could survive the intake of a certain number of birds?
I think what is alarming is the intake killed both engines. Aren't planes designed to be able to fly off one engine?
Doug Feaver: To the best of my knowledge and memory, the loss of both engines because of bird strikes (assuming that's what happened) is a first for a scheduled jetliner. And yes, aircraft manufacturers must demonstrate during certification that the plane will fly on one engine -- even at a such critical points such as takeoff.
Lexington Park, Md.: The performance of the crew appears to have been excellent. The aircraft also appears to have held up well in the ditching, speaking well of Airbus. Your thoughts?
Doug Feaver: I agree completely. A nose-down "landing" might well have produced a much different result. This "landing" on water looks to be right out of the textbook.
Amazing to watch on TV, however, I am disappointed at all the God/Miracle stuff -- the pilot was clearly skilled to handle an emergency situation. I also wish the news would recognize the other pilot and flight attendant who surely assisted in exiting the passengers from the plane.
Doug Feaver: Everything so far points to outstanding work by all the crew members -- the two in cockpit and the three flight attendants.
Vermont: Why do you think this plane stayed afloat while the one in the Potomac crash a number of years ago didn't?
Doug Feaver: Very different accident profiles. The Air Florida plane actually crashed into a span of the 14th Street Bridge -- a main highway bridge over the Potomac River -- after taking off from Reagan National. Pieces of the plane then fell into the river. Yesterday's landing on the Hudson River included a successful overflight of the George Washington Bridge.
Lexington Park, Md.: Crews are trained to close outflow valves prior to water entry in an attempt to ensure buoyancy and only use emergency exits that are likely to be above the waterline for egress to prolong float time. Standing on the wing was likely spontaneous because of the cold water.
Doug Feaver: Thanks.
Washington, D.C.: Where is the plane now? Has it been removed from the Hudson? What's next with it? Will it be salvaged and possibly reused?
Doug Feaver: The plane is still in the Hudson, but secured. One engine is missing. Safety board officials are concentrating on locating the Cockpit Voice Recorder and Flight Data Recorder, the so-called black boxes.
Chantilly, Va.: Were the passengers really aware of exactly what was going on? I read they were told to hold their heads down. Did they know the nature of the trouble? Did they think the plane had been hit by something, a bomb? Did they have any indication that a "soft landing" was being attempted?
Doug Feaver: All I know about this is what I've seen on TV and read -- the pilot everybody to brace for an impact.
Arlington, Va.: I'm a fearful/phobic flyer and haven't flown anywhere in four years. Surprisingly, yesterday's incident made me feel better about flying because I was able to see that emergency landings can be a success. I do worry though that all of the news coverage about Flight 1549 will cause other people to be fearful. Do you have any suggestions that might make these people feel better about flying or where they can get help?
Doug Feaver: I like this question. When I used to cover aviation accidents live, I inevitably flew to the site to do the story, and people kept asking me how I could do that. The fact is the more I covered aviation the more I realized that major airline accidents in this day and age are a statistical anomaly. Flying is much safer today than it was in the 70s and 80s, when I started covering the subject.
Washington, D.C.: In today's L.A. Times article related to the crash, an unnamed training pilot said that he was skeptical of the likelihood of duel bird strikes. He mentioned that in training it is not uncommon for pilots to turn off the wrong engine in the event of an simulated engine fire. Any thoughts on this perspective?
Doug Feaver: I have been careful to say that the early reports suggest a bird strike. But one thing that is absolutely certain about aircraft accident investigations is that the first suspected cause can turn out to be wrong. That's one of the reasons the safety board takes such time and care. Recovering the engines and studying them will, I suspect, be highly informative on the question of exactly what happened. It is also true that there is never a plane crash without an immediate accompanying set of theories about why it happened this way or why it couldn't happen this way. I'll wait on the safety board for the final word.
washingtonpost.com: New American Hero: Pilot of N.Y. Crash (AP, Jan. 16)
Lexington Park, Md.: Not too long ago a flock of Canada Geese brought down a 4-engine Air Force AWACS plan shortly after take off from an Alaska airbase resulting in the death of all on board. There is only so much designers, manufacturers and regulators can do. There are risks inherent in aviation. Your thoughts?
Doug Feaver: I agree. And a single Canada goose can weigh 11 pounds. Aircraft engines are supposed to be able to ingest a 4-pound bird.
London, U.K.: Why so little mention of the co-pilot in the press? It's portrayed as a solo effort.
Doug Feaver: Good question. I don't know whether the captain or first officer was the pilot flying at the time of takeoff, but normally in an emergency the captain would take control if he or she did not already have control. And in an emergency everybody on the crew is really busy.
Lovetttsville, Va.: I heard an aviation expert on TV say last night that this Airbus model has a dead stick glide ratio of about 20:1, so if he lost power at 3,000 feet he would be able to glide about 10 or 11 miles. Ballpark scaling on a map makes me think he MIGHT have made Teterboro, but not with much margin of error. Considering the all of the buildings and people in that area of Northern New Jersey, he probably didn't want to chance it. That big, wide, straight Hudson River probably looked like his best shot.
Doug Feaver: We haven't heard from the captain yet, but I suspect that's a good analysis.
23112: How often does a scenario like this get trained in simulators?
Doug Feaver: Another super question, and I don't know the answer. Accidents inevitably result in what gets cranked into simulator programs. I would not be surprised if the flight data recording of this accident -- a literal recreation of what happened -- will find its way into simulators.
Annapolis, Md.: When are we going to hear from the pilot? I saw that his wife was on TV earlier today, what about him? How come he's not coming forward?
Doug Feaver: I don't know when or if the pilot will be available to the press and the public. Normally pilots aren't permitted to go public until the safety board, the pilots union, and sometimes the FAA have asked all of their questions.
washingtonpost.com: Video: Crash Survivors Thank Pilot, Rescuers
Doug Feaver: Lots of good questions, and thank you. My time is up. All of us will be watching this investigation with great interest.
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