Thursday, January 15, 2009
On ice ... as workers on shore watch, a crane hoists the wreckage of the US Airways airplane that crashed in the Hudson River out of the icy river in New York
THE pilot who safely brought down a stricken Airbus described flying into a wall of large birds just after take-off, officials said today.
Terrifying details of the US Airways flight's last moments before a successful crash-landing in New York's Hudson River emerged as officials reported advances in the difficult salvage operation.
Testimony from pilot Chesley Sullenberger, credited with saving the lives of all 155 aboard, made it clear that a collision with a flock of birds, possibly geese, crippled the engines and triggered disaster.
The cockpit windscreen "was literally filled with big, dark brown birds," Sullenberger told investigators, said Kitty Higgins, from the National Transport Safety Board (NTSB). "He said his instinct was to duck, but he didn't."
Simultaneously, the pilot and co-pilot "heard booms, felt the impact, the power went down and they smelled - this is the captain saying - they smelled 'burning birds.'"
Earlier today (AEDT), giant cranes were ready to start lifting the nearly sunken plane from the icy Hudson, the NTSB said.
The operation, likely to take a long time, will allow recovery of the black box flight recorders located in the tail.
Search crews also think they have found the Airbus' left engine, which was torn off in the crash and sank, the NTSB said.
This had still to be confirmed, but finding the engine will aid investigators trying to confirm whether the jets stopped after large birds were sucked into the turbines.
At the time of the impact, the plane's co-pilot was at the controls.
He noticed a flock of birds to the right and commented on their perfect line formation, Higgins told a news conference.
"I think he believed, based on what he saw, that they were going to fly under the plane," Higgins recounted.
"When (the captain) looked up, he said the windscreen was filled with birds," Higgins said.
With both engines out, the captain decided that the only place he could land without endangering people on the ground was the Hudson.
The captain said he decided against returning to LaGuardia because he was "too low, too slow, they were pointed the wrong way and they had to traverse a populated area," Higgins told the news conference.
An alternative airport was also ruled because as "it was a populated area, the consequences would have been catastrophic."
Sullenberger took over control of the plane and "lowered the nose to try and counteract the loss of airspeed," Higgins said.
"While the captain was flying the aircraft, the first officer was trying desperately to restart the engines," Higgins said.
"There was very little conversation. These are both experienced pilots. They both knew what they had to do."
After a perfect water landing, all 150 passengers and five crew were able to walk out of the sinking aircraft and enter rescue boats.
Sullenberger told investigators that in line with standard procedures, he had brought down the plane close to a boat he saw on the river so that help would be near, Higgins said.
The Airbus's entire flight, from take-off to splash landing in the Hudson, lasted about five minutes, Higgins said.
Security camera film footage released today showed for the first time the moment of impact.
Water shoots up as the plane makes a perfectly straight landing - a brilliant piece of handling that experts say prevented a tragic break-up of the plane.
Crew members didn't even realise where they were at first, the NTSB said.
There was "one impact, no bounce, a gradual deceleration and neither one of them realised they were in the water," Higgins said. "The captain issued a one word demand: evacuate."
Crew interviews also confirmed reports of how the Sullenberger refused to leave his sinking plane until he was sure everyone was safe.
"He was very concerned with the count of the passengers," the flight crew told the NTSB, Higgins said.
"He wanted everyone accounted for. He returned to the plane a couple of times to check no one was there. The captain was the last off."