LONDON — Today, we commemorate the 15-year milestone of an event that is both remarkable and sorrowful in the annals of aviation. On this day, two pilots undertook an act that continues to be debated as an insurmountable feat.
Merely ten minutes after departing from New York’s LaGuardia Airport (LGA), the aircraft’s pilots and crew achieved widespread recognition for their exceptional professionalism and heroism. Their achievement stands as a pivotal moment in aviation, serving as one of the most significant lessons that forever altered the course and safety of air travel worldwide.
According to Lori Bassani, the National President of the Association of Professional Flight Attendants (APFA), “Flight Attendants undergo extensive training, accumulating hundreds of hours of instruction. Each year, they must requalify to ensure they remain up to date on their safety obligations.”
She further added, “While no one desires to employ their emergency training in a real-life scenario, we understand that through this training, we are equipped to carry out our duties and responsibilities, which have become second nature to us all.”
Bassani proceeded to acknowledge Donna, Doreen, and Sheila, the three flight attendants who were on duty that fateful day, for their remarkable display of skills that resulted in saving the lives of 150 passengers a decade ago. “Today, APFA continues to pay tribute to our colleagues, as they epitomize the true essence of our profession,” Bassani concluded.
US Airways Flight 1549
On US Airways Flight 1549, Captain Sullenberger and First Officer Jeffery Skiles were in command, flying from LaGuardia to Charlotte. The aircraft, an Airbus A320-214, was equipped with two GE CFM56-5B3/P turbofan engines. Shortly after receiving clearance for takeoff from LaGuardia, the plane collided with a flock of geese, causing severe damage to both engines.
Passengers and crew members later recounted hearing loud noises and witnessing flames emanating from the engines. These unsettling sounds persisted for a brief moment, followed by a daunting silence induced by the complete loss of power in both engines.
In the cockpit, both pilots were inundated with a flurry of warning signals, compounded by the shock and disbelief of encountering an emergency scenario for which they had never been trained. The situation was incredibly tense, as the aircraft found itself without functioning engines at an altitude below 3,000 feet, with a full load of fuel and passengers aboard.
In a state of shock and bewilderment, Captain Sullenberger sprang into action alongside First Officer Skiles, swiftly configuring the aircraft to achieve its optimal glide speed.
The best glide speed is a predetermined velocity provided by the aircraft manufacturer, indicating the speed at which the airplane should be flown in the event of a dual-engine failure. This specific speed ensures the maximum lift-to-drag ratio, thereby enabling the greatest possible gliding distance.
For the Airbus A320, the estimated best glide speed is approximately 220 knots. At an altitude of 1,500 feet, every minute the plane remains airborne equates to approximately three minutes of gliding time.
Having established the aircraft in a glide, Captain Sullenberger instructed First Officer Skiles to commence the engine restart checklist. Unfortunately, all attempts to restart the engines proved futile. By the time the checklist was completed, the plane had no viable option to glide back to any of the three nearby airports—Newark and Teterboro.
By employing quick and astute thinking, coupled with the expertise acquired through their crew’s exceptional training, Sully arrived at a decision that would revolutionize pilot training practices.
With no viable runway available and skyscrapers encompassing the aircraft, the only conceivable choice was to execute a water landing in the Hudson River. Yet, one significant hurdle lay before them: no one had ever endeavored to land a fully-laden A320 in the river.
Nevertheless, following the successful landing on the river, all crew members and passengers disembarked the aircraft unharmed, thanks in large part to the swift response of nearby boats and ferries.
Looking Back at What We Learnt
Since the incident involving Flight 1549, the aviation industry has made significant advancements, with numerous studies and improvements stemming from the crash.
One notable change that was implemented is the mandatory inclusion of training for pilots on handling dual engine failures after takeoff. This was an aspect that was previously deemed improbable in routine aircraft operations until the unforeseen occurrence brought it to the forefront of attention.
Flight 1549 stands out as an extraordinary event, as the sequence of events that transpired on that day was far from typical. Within a single hour, a series of incidents unfolded, altering the trajectory of aviation. Consequently, extensive research and collaboration with manufacturers worldwide are now underway to gain a better understanding of bird migration and develop effective measures to prevent bird-plane encounters.
One recent development that emerged in 2018 involved the proposal of “flashing” landing lights to airlines across the globe. The concept suggests that birds would be lured away by the presence of flashing lights, thereby diverting them from aircraft.
Initial plans and trials of these innovative designs were anticipated to be implemented and demonstrated on planes in the United Kingdom as early as 2019. These advancements, coupled with improvements made to aircraft and engines, prompted the provision of additional training to pilots from various corners of the world.
One of the keynotes that happened during the investigation of the accident was the NTSB’s stance against Captain Sullenberger, where they did not agree with the decision to ditch the plane in the Hudson.
In the movie “Sully,” they showed these key points of the investigation where simulated events had shown that had the pilots elected to return to LaGuardia moments after both engines had failed, the plane would have made it back to the runway.
Read More: The New “Sully” Movie: How Accurate?
Airbus ran these scenarios in their A320 simulators with two test pilots. However, it was noted that the simulation of the events had not allowed for the human factor, as the pilots of flight 1549 did not know that both engines were about to fail.
They did not turn the plane back towards the airport immediately. Instead, an estimated 100 seconds had elapsed before the serious nature of the situation they were facing had truly begun to sink in.
Although 100 seconds is not a massive amount of time, every one of them made it impossible for the plane to make it back to LGA, or for the plane to glide and divert to another airfield.
These 100 seconds changed the entire outcome of the investigation—the pilots were hailed as heroes and the lessons they learned that day were used to teach pilots around the world not only the importance of clear and precise crew coordination but also the importance of following the published pitch and speed layouts given to the airlines from the manufacturers.
Despite what could have been a tragic event in aviation, the skill and professionalism displayed by both Captain and crew on this day 10 years ago will forever be noted in the books of aviation history.
Captain Sullenberger and First Officer Skiles, alongside their crew, acted with extreme professionalism. The decisions they were forced to make in only three minutes saved the lives of every soul on board that Airbus jetliner.
There is an old saying in aviation around the world used by pilots: “Any landing you can walk away from is a good landing.” Well, I guess Flight 1549’s landing on the Hudson River can also be considered “good,” but it should also be noted that it was nothing short of a miracle.
Featured image: N106US on display at the Carolinas Aviation Museum. Photo: RadioFan, photographed at Carolinas Aviation Museum, CC BY-SA 3.0