Transcript Reveals Details From Hudson Splashdown
By ANDY PASZTOR
WASHINGTON -- US Airways Capt. Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger, the much-heralded hero of the January airliner ditching on New York's Hudson River, told federal investigators Tuesday that in a matter of seconds he determined only the river was "long enough, wide enough and smooth enough" to put down his crippled jetliner.
Audio From US Airways Crash in Hudson River
The National Transportation Safety Board is holding a hearing into the January crash of US Airways Flight 1549 into a New York river. The NTSB has released audio of the pilots and air-traffic controllers. Animation courtesy of the NTSB.
Testifying before the National Transportation Safety Board, Capt. Sullenberger said that when both engines of his Airbus A320 lost power at about 2,700 feet after sucking in birds, he quickly decided that the plane was losing speed and altitude and that returning to LaGuardia airport was "problematic."
"I had to make sure I could make it [back to LaGuardia] before I chose that option," Capt. Sullenberger said. "I couldn't afford to be wrong." (See and hear the transcript from Flight 1549.)
In many ways, the scene in the packed hearing room resembled an interview of a pop idol more than the testimony of an aviator who started flying as a teenager and has worked for US Airways for nearly three decades. The questioning was gentle, respectful and at times, downright congenial.
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US Airways Flight 1549
US Airways Flight 1549 landed in the Hudson River on January 15.
US Airways Flight 1549
US Airways Flight 1549
* NTSB Animation: Flight path video, transcript
* Pilot Lands Jet on Hudson River
* Photos of the river landing
* Map | Audio Reports
In the highly unusual hearing, Capt. Sullenberger's unemotional, sometimes clipped testimony was watched by a throng of international media.
While the first part of the hearing produced little new technical information, it did highlight the intense drama, adrenaline and teamwork that saved the lives of all 155 people aboard Flight 1549 on Jan. 15.
After spotting a flock of birds that "were very large and filled the entire windscreen" of the jet, Capt Sullenberger noticed a dramatic drop in thrust. Investigators later determined at least three birds were sucked into the engines. Disregarding air-traffic controller suggestions to return to LaGuardia or try to swoop into another nearby airport, Capt. Sullenberger set his sights on the surface of the Hudson.
With the plane's flaps out, speed dwindling fast and splashdown barely seconds away, Capt. Sullenberger asked his first officer: "Got any ideas?" Co-pilot Jeff Skiles instantly replied: "Actually not."
Once the plane settled in the water and the crew realized the fuselage remained intact, Capt. Sullenberger told the safety board, he turned toward his first officer and both instinctively blurted out at the same instant: "That wasn't as bad as I thought."
In a space of seven minutes, four rescue vessels surrounded the ditched airliner.
While the safety board's three-day hearing will delve into a broad range of technical and operational issues dealing with aircraft design and emergency escape issues, the indisputable star of the session was Capt. Sullenberger.
[Chesley Sully Sullenberger III, who ditched US Airways Flight 1549 in the Hudson River, arrives for a hearing before the NTSB Tuesday in Washington.] Getty Images
Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger III, who ditched US Airways Flight 1549 in the Hudson River, arrives for a hearing before the NTSB Tuesday in Washington.
At a time when many commercial airline pilots say they are frustrated by dwindling pay, longer work weeks and eroded pensions, the testimony of the captain recalled the golden age of aviators exuding confidence and sangfroid.
Many of the flight attendants and passengers thought the Airbus was headed for land. But Capt. Sullenberger, who started flying at the age of 16 and has been at the controls of everything from gliders to three different jetliners, told the safety board he picked his landing spot with care.
The airline's training instructed pilots that if they ever had to ditch, they should "land near vessels to try to facilitate rescue."
Responding to questions about the lessons to be learned from the extraordinary landing, Capt. Sullenberger mentioned training to help pilots work together as a team and additional efforts to improve emergency evacuations. But his comments repeatedly swung back to the notion of an airline culture that stresses safety and respects the judgment of experienced pilots. US Airways pilots received classroom instruction in ditching procedures, but Capt. Sullenberger testified that they never practiced any ditching scenarios in simulators.
In a pointed remark on the cost-cutting and heightened corporate regimentation that currently drive many airlines, Capt. Sullenberger considered the intangibles of safe airmanship. "The captain's authority is a precious commodity that cannot be denigrated," he said.
The captain's testimony also highlighted the importance of relying on experience and memory, rather than rigidly using written checklists to deal with unexpected emergencies. With both pilots in the cockpit boasting about 20,000 hours of total flight time, Capt. Sullenberger said that teamwork and experience "allowed us to focus on the high priorities without referring to written" checklists.
Billy Campbell, one of the passengers on the plane, testified about seeing the left engine engulfed in flames as though it were "a bonfire," and then scampering out of the aircraft as water was seeping in near the tail. "We were so fortunate to have an unbelievable pilot, an unbelievable copilot" and a highly experienced cabin crew, he told the board.
Robert Sumwalt, the safety board member chairing the hearing, said that after listening to the cockpit voice recorder after the ditching of US Airways Flight 1549, he was impressed by the actions of the pilots. "I've never walked out of a flight recorder lab with a smile."