Saturday, January 17, 2009

Flight 1549 Captain Sullenberger - Skill and a Whole Lot of Luck

As you might expect the flight deck is a pretty busy place from the push back until leveling out at your assigned altitude. Even more so if you manage to somehow hit a flock of geese going more than 200 knots our your way to that happy safe spot in the sky high above the tera firma.

So what happened and how did veteran pilot Chesley Sullenberger and his co-pilot Jeff Skiles pull off the miracle? A combination of good clear and very cold weather, a well built aircraft, and a skilled flight crew with a large dose of good old fashioned luck.

Here's my best guess as to what might have happened on the flight deck. Flight 1549 was scheduled to take off at 2:45 p.m. on Thursday. The usual delays have the flight running behind, but making Charlotte on time is padded into the departure window for all flights departing LGA.

Flight 1549 is pushed back from the gate at 3:03 p.m. but there is no rush to work through the check lists, as the they have at least 20 minutes of taxi time and standing in the que along the taxiway before they are looking down the center line of runway 4.

At 3:23 PM LGA Tower clears US Airways 1549 for departure, lined up on the center line, Sullenberger advances the throttles as co-pilot Jeff Skiles places his left hand behind Sullenberger to insure the throttles stay in the go position.

Rolling down runway 4 at LGA, with a cross wind is routine, in fact that slightly bothersome cross wind will later pay big dividends.

The plane lifts off at 175 knots, with wheels up at 3:24 pm as Rikers Island slips below the left wing of the airplane and the full load of 150 passengers, settle into their post departure routine.

On the flight deck the Co-pilot Jeff Skiles works through the procedures to clean up the aircraft by reducing the flaps and trim. Flight 1549 makes a directed climbing left turn to the west heading out over Manhattan Island. 40 seconds into the flight the Airbus A320 hits a flock of Canada geese at approximately 2900 AGL.

There is no time to avoid the flock and the geese are instant hamburger. The rotating turbine blades do their best to digest the foreign objects.

But the blades can only stand so much and both engines begin to spin into catastrophic self destruction. A calliope of bells, klaxons, and horns sound. Lights and gauges all signal a sudden power loss. The aircraft continues to climb as the plane has plenty of speed but thrust is noticeably absent and the aircraft veers to the left and then right.

Captain Sullenberger glances over his shoulder and flames are seen coming from the inboard side of the port (left) engine.

Sullenberger takes over from Co-Pilot Skiles.

The co-pilot Jeff Skiles changes the the transponder to the squawk the 7700 emergency code begins to work through the re-light procedures, accepting the fact that both engines are gone they switch to aux power to provide systems control.

(Without either engine electrical power failure becomes a concern, starting the APU in the tail would provide electrical power to continue the flight. Also a wind turbine generator may have been deployed.)

The Wall Street Journal confirmed the use of both the APU and Wind Powered Generator on January 19, 2009

3:25: US Airways 1549 calls New York TRACON (Terminal Radar Approach Control Center) in Westbury, N.Y., and tells departure control of the "double bird strike," then declares an emergency and asks to return to airport.

(By "double bird strike," controllers believed Sullenberger meant that both his jet engines had been damaged by bird impacts.)

The controller gives 1549 a heading to return to LaGuardia and tells Flight 1549 that runway 13 is open.

The pilot in command now Sullenburger is already making a left turn to head back to LGA while communicating with the LGA tower and watching out for other aircraft. But recognizing that his resources are quickly diminishing Sullenberger's life of flying is about to be put to the ultimate test.

Sullenberger replies "unable."

Then Sullenberger sees an airstrip in the northern New Jersey suburbs, asking what it was and if he could go there. The controller tells him that it is Teterboro, which is a smaller field that serves mainly commuter and private planes. The controller gives him clearance to make an emergency landing on Teterboro's Runway 1.

Teterboro is six miles, a quick mental calculation: Altitude, Speed, Wind, Runway Ailment, and No Power... Too Low, Too Slow.

Sullenberger again replies: "unable."

It was not immediately clear whether Sullenberger had by then decided he couldn't reach Teterboro or that he wouldn't be able to apply the reverse thrusters on his jets to safely stop the aircraft on the Teterboro runway.

Then 1549 then advises the controller they are going into the Hudson River. The TRACON notifies New York harbor authorities of the imminent ditching.

Double engine failures are rare and Sullenberger is about to ask his Airbus to give her best performance ever and push the aircraft to the limits of the flight envelope.

The decision to turn southwest is a life saver. A turn downwind to the northeast up the Hudson would have most likely been fatal.

3:27 the flight crew in the cabin is notified via the aircraft intercom. But the flight crew already knows they are in trouble as do most of the frequent fliers aboard flight 1549.

(At this point the flight attendants should have instructed the passengers to retrieve the life vests from under their seats and instructed the passengers on how to properly wear the vest and not to inflate them. Apparently this did not happen as a majority of the passengers did not have life vests when they exited the plan. Many of those exiting the plane were hampered by inflated life vests.)

Sullenberger sets the plane up on the green bug for the maximum glide distance, then changes his mind, because the Hudson takes a left turn just past the Aircraft Carrier Intrepid and 40th Street.

The altitude that once provided safety for Flight 1549 now is a threat, the Airbus A320 needs to get down and slow to the lowest possible approach speed. 3:28: LGA Radar shows 1549 turning south and just north of the George Washington Bridge, the jet's altitude is 2,000 feet and speed is 232 mph.

Going nearly 100 miles a hour faster than is needed to land the A320, Sullenberger must bleed off speed and loose altitude.

(At this point flaps and air brakes are deployed to slow the plane. Then having slowed the plane, slats and flaps would provide greater lift at slower airspeed.)

Controllers fear the jet will not clear the bridge, but 1549's transponder confirms that they have enough altitude as another aircraft informs LGA that it looks like the Airbus is lined up and will splash in the Hudson.

Using all the tools (air brakes, slats and flaps) available to him Captain Sullenberger manages to get flight 1549 low and slow. The New York skyline flashes by on the left side of the aircraft.

Captain Sullenberger has completly shut down both engines. Remarkably Hudson River traffic is basically nil, in part due to the time of day, approaching darkness and the cold 20 degree weather that has slowed work crews to idle chatter dockside.

Roof tops are no longer visible to the passengers and flight crew as the Airbus slowly glides down the Hudson River and the length of Manhattan Island.

911 dispatchers have already received calls regarding an aircraft on fire over the Bronx.

At 3:31 Flight 1549 drops off on the radar at LGA as the aircraft floats just a few feet above the water. Captain Sullenberger grabs the handset keys the mike and firmly speaks the words no passenger wants to hear: "Brace for impact".

The steady breeze off the Atlantic provides ten knots head wind. The frigid air is wonderfully dense, and it provides extra lift as the aircraft slows below 100 knots. The slow approach speed, slightly nose up configuration, the head wind, dense air, lack of water traffic all play a part as 1549 gently settles onto New York's Hudson River with Captain Sullenberger's experienced touch on the controls.

Port athurority cameras capture flight 1549 tail low nose high just as the plane touches down. Inside the Airbus A320, Sullenberge has the control yoke pulled all the back into his lap.

The tail knifes into the water as airspeed falls, the plane stops flying and the engines dive into the water, sheets of water explode thirty feet or more into the air on both sides of the plane.

The rapidly slowing aircraft stays afloat and turns slightly to the left coming to a stop but drifting down river in a 3 knot current.

3:35: FDNY receives reports of plane in the water.

At 3:31:02 in the USCG video below you can see US Airways Flight 1549 sliding on to the Hudson River.

Video showing the touch down of flight 1549 at the New York Times

More amazing Photos of US Airways Flight 1549 at Life Floating By


Anonymous said...

Here are a bunch of people that were certian that no one would make it through a water landing in an airbus:

Anonymous said...

Canada Geese are terrible, mean-spirited birds that scream at you for no reason, crap anywhere they see fit, and -- as evidenced yesterday -- have no qualms about taking a plane down.

Anonymous said...

Good Call Cedar! Looks like you know your stuff!

Anonymous said...

WSJ was wrong.. no RAT deployment as the number 1 engne was still producing (greatly reduced) thrust. No APU since no need and no time..see what Airbus Indutrie released. The A/C was in "normal law" mode putting the lie to the anti- FBW theories.. The Captain and F/O and their computers flew it "by wire" the entire trip...with full computer sfateguards , full hydraulics... Oh and BTW to those tools O'Reilly and Jerry Rivers. the surge two days prior (in the engine that was the one that a remained turning btw) was boroscopically damage..and the responsible faulty temp sensor was replaced in minutes by those HEROES in MAINTENANCE... To Geraldo.. a boroscope is like the proctoscope that is helping keep your head safey up your ass.....except higher tech and operated by people that work with tools your staff do..

Cedar Posts and Life Floating By said...

Anonymous - Thanks for the update!

Good facts and yes major props to the guys who keep these aircraft flying.

Anonymous said...

Sullenberger, confirms they powered on the APU during interview with Katie Couric on 60 minutes.