How Sullenberger Really Saved US Airways Flight 1549

Hint: It wasn't heroism.

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When airplanes crash, it’s usually because a bunch of unexpected things go wrong all at once, or one after the other. Obviously something dramatic went wrong with US Airways Flight 1549, which lost power in both engines and crash-landed on the Hudson River on January 15. But a lot went right, too.

Capt. Chesley Sullenberger has earned plaudits for “heroism,” but that oversimplifies what it took to land the crippled Airbus A320 and get all 150 passengers off safely, before the plane sank. Here are some of the other factors that helped everybody aboard Flight 1549 survive:

Thorough training. Sullenberger may be a model aviator, but it wasn’t heroism that brought Flight 1549 down safely. It was rigorous training that’s inbred in the U.S. aviation system. Pilots have to fly for years before they can command an airliner, and even experienced pilots must routinely train in simulators and pass “check rides” at least once a year under the supervision of Federal Aviation Administration inspectors. Pilots sometimes gripe about overzealous FAA inspectors, but the oversight contributes to a culture of accountability and fastidious attention to detail in the cockpit.

For airline pilots, training focuses on dire scenarios, such as the US Airways crew encountered. “Pilots don’t spend their training time flying straight and level,” says airline pilot Lynn Spencer, author of Touching History: The Untold Story of the Drama That Unfolded in the Skies over America on 9/11. “In simulator training, we’re doing nothing but flying in all sorts of emergencies. Even emergencies become just another set of procedures when repeatedly trained.” As more information emerges on the actions of “Sully” and his first officer, Jeffrey Skiles, it seems clear that it was cool, rational decision-making that saved the day. That’s reason enough to lionize the pilots.

A clear division of labor in the cockpit. From the time the engines stopped producing thrust – presumably because they ingested birds – Sullenberger and Skiles had about three minutes before the powerless plane glided back to earth. And the cockpit would suddenly have become an intense environment to work in. Other airplane systems would have been failing, since they’re powered by the engines. Alerts would have been dinging. Two video screens would have been flashing vital aircraft information and checklists of emergency procedures to go through. Once the pilots chose their course, they would have started to prepare for a water landing. All in three minutes.

[Check out this video showing how a 4-pound bird can wreck a 75-ton plane.]

As captain, it was Sullenberger’s job to figure out where to land the plane. No doubt he considered returning to New York’s LaGuardia airport, where the plane had taken off from, or to another airport, before realizing that the Hudson was his best bet. Meanwhile, it would have been First Officer Skiles’s job to hurry through a set of checklists with procedures for restarting the engines. Pilots train for losing and restarting both engines on a two-engine jet – but usually using high-altitude scenarios, when there’s a lot more drift-down time than three minutes. Had both pilots fixated on restarting the engines, they could easily have waited too long to pick a place to land, and ended up careening through a populated area. Instead, Sullenberger abided by the basic rule of airplane emergencies: First, fly the airplane.

A textbook landing. It appears that Sullenberger landed Flight 1549 on the Hudson much as he would have landed on a runway – but without engine power, and with far less margin for error. “It’s very important in a water landing to fly the aircraft onto the water as slow as possible,” says Don Shepperd, a Vietnam-era fighter pilot and co-author (with the writer of this article), of Bury Us Upside Down: The Misty Pilots and the Secret Battle for the Ho Chi Minh Trail. “The faster you hit, the more likely the plane will cartwheel or the fuselage will disintegrate.” Too slow, however, and the plane could lose lift and “stall,” causing the nose to pitch down into the water uncontrolled. “Once the decision was made to ditch,” Shepperd says, “it was a magnificent piece of aviation professionalism.”

The water landing was obviously shocking to those on board - yet mild compared to what could have happened. “I believed the impact would be violent but survivable,” wrote one passenger, who happened to be a pilot for another airline. “It was much milder than I had anticipated. If the jolt had been turbulence, I would have described it as moderate.”

Buoyancy. Once in the water, Flight 1549 sank slowly. Until there’s full testimony from the pilots, it’s not clear whether one of them pushed the aircraft’s “ditching” button, which seals some of the plane’s valves and intakes and other openings that could let water into the cabin. But they probably did – the plane obviously floated long enough for everybody to get out. Had the landing ripped a hole in the fuselage, or something else compromised the cabin, the plane could have sunk in seconds, with passengers and crew still trapped inside. Or jet fuel could have ignited, creating a watery inferno.

A competent cabin crew. The pilot tends to get all the glory, but the “Miracle on the Hudson” also required flight attendants who directed passengers to the right exits and kept panicky people calm as they scuttled out the doors. If disciplined training and adherence to procedures is the measure of a hero, then they were as “heroic” as Sullenberger. The only obvious oversight in the whole episode is that many passengers left the plane without grabbing their life vests or flotation devices (seat cushions). The FAA may revise safety procedures so that during a no-notice water landing, there’s some kind of last-minute reminder to do this.

Luck. The whole drama still could have turned tragic, had a bunch of things beyond the pilots’ control not gone their way. But the intangibles worked in their favor. The closest body of water was a smooth river, for instance, rather than a choppy ocean with waves and swells that could have flipped the airplane. Landing on the Hudson in winter meant the jet didn’t have to dodge hundreds of private boats sailing up and down the river. And the plane was quickly surrounded by ferries and other vessels able to pluck freezing passengers off the wings and out of the water. “The winds and waves are always on the side of the ablest navigators,” wrote historian Edward Gibbon in the 18th century. He didn’t know Sully or Skiles. But then again, he did.

Newman is co-author, with Patrick Creed, of Firefight: Inside the Battle to Save the Pentagon on 9-11.


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  • Rick Newman

    Rick Newman is the author of Rebounders: How Winners Pivot From Setback to Success and the co-author of two other books. Follow him on Twitter or e-mail him at rnewman@usnews.com.

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