When we started this blog just over a year ago, we decided to place a photo we took of the New York City skyline several years ago at the top of our page. The photo was taken from the deck of a New York Waterway ferry, traveling from their West 38th Street terminal in Manhattan, to their Port Imperial terminal in Weehawken, New Jersey. Little did we know at that time, that New York Waterway ferries, quite possibly the very boat we took our photo from, quite possibly piloted by the same captain, would be involved in this story.
That stretch of the Hudson River is the exact spot where Captain Chesley B. Sullenberger (see his page at linkedin.com) landed US Airways Flight 1549 yesterday afternoon. It landed in the middle of the river, near, or just slightly South of where the USS Intrepid (pictured in our banner photo), and now a sea, air & space museum, is permanently moored on the Hudson. That would put it right around the center of the frame in our photo. Then, because the lower Hudson River is a tidal river, subject to very strong currents, it quickly floated South, towards lower Manhattan. It was eventually manuvered to the shoreline off Battery Park, where it was tied up, awaiting a barge and crane which will lift it from the River.
How strong can the currents on the Hudson get? I don’t know what the typical ferry boat’s top speed is, but when the tide is going out, and the river is flowing South in the area of Manhattan, ferries we’ve been on can barely make any headway when heading North, against the current !
Just after takeoff from LaGuardia Airport (LGA) in Queens, New York, and heading to Charlotte Douglas Airport (CLT) in Charlotte, North Carolina, it is believed that the Airbus A320-214 with 155 passengers and crew aboard struck a flock of Canada Geese, and injested birds into both of its CFM56 engines, disabling them.
Flight 1549 pilot, Captain, Chesley Sullenberger, age 57, a former U.S. Air Force fighter pilot, has flown for US Airways for almost 30 years. He is also the owner of Safety Reliability Methods, Inc., and you can view his profile at their website. A point we found most interesting about Captain Sullenberger, is that in addition to a Master’s degree in Public Administration from the University of Northern Colorado, he holds a Master’s degree in Psychology with a concentration in Human Factors, from Purdue University. Prior to that, he received his Bachelor’s degree in Psychology and Basic Sciences from the United States Air Force Academy in Colorado. “Human factors” certainly played a role in averting disaster yesterday.
With the aircraft traveling West as it struck the birds over The Bronx, Captain Sullenberger reportedly considered attempting to reach Teterboro Airport, which was approximately eight miles away in Northern New Jersey, but he opted to turn South, and make an emergency water landing on the Hudson River instead. With the loss of both engines, he was at the controls of what was now a very heavy glider, and apparently felt he might not make the airport. He was also undoubtedly concerned about overflying heavily populated Northern New Jersey in his crippled aircraft. It turned out to be an excellent call. That’s the value of having someone like Chesley Sullenberger, with almost 40 years of flying experience, in the Captain’s seat.
The decision to make what turned out to be a textbook water landing undoubtedly saved 155 lives on the plane, and countless lives on the ground. It even seems that once the intact plane is pulled from the river, the passengers will eventually get their checked baggage returned to them, even if it doesn’t smell quite as fresh as it did when they checked it. We’re really hoping that there weren’t any live animals in the cargo hold, since they would have certainly drowned.
The fact that Captain Sullenberger happened to ditch the plane on that particular section of the Hudson River also played a big role in saving lives (Sullenberger indicated to accident investigators that he deliberately landed his plane close to river traffic, to “improve chances of recovery”).
It is heavily traveled by various watercraft, including ferries and tour boats. With the plane filling with water, and it’s passengers standing on the submerging wings and sitting on the deployed escape chutes, as many as 14 New York Waterway ferries, and at least one Circle Line tour boat converged on the aircraft, some reportedly within a minute or two of it’s hitting the water (read this NY Times story about some of the rescuers). Every passenger on the plane was rescued, with some suffering hypothermia and non life-threatening injuries. With an air temperature around 20 degrees Farenheit, and a water temperature in the 30’s, the plane’s passengers would not have survived very long in the near-freezing water of the Hudson River.
Only in New York !
Interestingly, there has been next to nothing in the news about the other four crew members, who should also be recognized. We found the identities of the other crew members in this Wall Street Journal article, which we excerpt here…
“According to an internal US Airways flight roster, the first officer on the flight was Jeffrey Skiles, and the three flight attendants were Donna Dent, Doreen Welsh and Sheila Dail. One of the three attendants was injured and taken to a Manhattan hospital.”
This Chicago Tribune article says that First Officer Skiles, age 49, lives in the town of Oregon, Wisconsin. He is a former flight instructor, who began flying at age 15.
New York Waterway, whose ferry Captains and crew members were instrumental in the rescue, is an interesting company. Started in 1986 by Arthur E. Imperatore, who previously operated a major East Coast trucking company, APA Transport, along with four of his brothers (see his bother George E. Imperatore’s obituary in the NY Times). New York Waterway service expanded after the September 11, 2001 attack on the World Trade Center shut down the PATH (Port Authority Trans Hudson) subway line between New Jersey and the World Trade Center site in lower Manhattan. When the PATH service eventually resumed, ridership on the ferries dropped off precipitously, nearly bankrupting New York Waterway. New York Waterway is now run by Imperatore’s son, Arthur Imperatore, Jr. Here’s an article about Arthur Jr.
The New York Waterway ferry ride between Weekawken, New Jersey and midtown Manhattan(they also operate other routes) is a pleasant five-minute voyage, albeit fairly expensive when you add up the fare and the parking fee. They offer free shuttle buses on the New York side, which will take ferry passengers to and from many parts of Manhattan.
Of course, the quintessential New York ferry ride is the city-operated Staten Island Ferry, which is actually free ! The 25-minute trips between St. George on Staten Island and lower Manhattan operate 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
Our guess is that President-elect Obama just might be inviting the heroic crew members of US Airways flight 1549 to the White House soon after his inauguration on January 20th. It was reported that President Bush phoned Captain Chesley Sullenberger. And we hope US Airways shows Captain Sullenberger (and the other crew members) their appreciation, despite the fact that he got one of their aircraft a bit damp.
Making Water Landings More Survivable
If this flight had made the same successful water landing in an area where immediate assistance from vessels in the area was not possible, the outcome would have been drastically different.
While we’re not aviation experts, we wonder if passenger aircraft might be designed to be boyant, whether or not the plane’s hull is breached. The Airbus A320 that was involved in this accident is equipped with what is called a “ditch switch” (see details and photo here). which the pilots can activate prior to a water landing. Assuming the hull remains intact, it is supposed to close the ports and other openings in the belly of the aircraft that would permit water to enter. In this incident, water quickly filled the airplane, so it seems like the hull was probably compromised in the landing. We suspect that this will be one of the things that investigators will be looking at. Perhaps airbags or other flotation devices that deploy when an aircraft hits the water are feasible.
The accounts we’ve read indicate that water in part of the cabin was chest-high before all the passengers could exit the plane. Passengers who were standing on the wings, awaiting rescue, found themselves sinking below the waterline as the fuselage took on water. Given the water and air temperature, it’s doubtful they would have survived, had rescuers not arrived almost immediately (see NY Times story).
It also seems to us that the U.S. Coast Guard, which licenses and regulates vessels such as the numerous ferries and tour boats that are found around New York City, might enact regulations that will help crews on those boats be more effective in rescues. For example, might some sort of platform that could be lowered to the water level be made required equipment ? Perhaps a motorized winch with a basket that can be lowered to the water would be valuable for water rescues. One of the ferries was using some sort of roll-up ladder which they unfurled over the bow of the ship, but injured, severly hypothermic victims or babies would not be able to climb a ladder. Would requiring vessels like ferries to have a few survival suits on-board for crew member use be feasible ?
If we’re not mistaken, the FAA only requires life rafts on aircraft that fly overwater routes. We doubt that a New York to Charlotte flight is categorized as such, but as flight 1549 demonstrated, being on a freezing river is probably not much different from being on the open ocean, in terms of the need for equipment such as life rafts. It appeared to us that some of the passengers on flight 1549 were sitting on inflated escape chutes (one chute at the forward door on each side of the plane), and not on life rafts. If there had been sufficient life rafts available on this flight, it seems that the crew would have had time to deploy them, and the crew would not have told passengers to jump into the water, as some have claimed !
Perhaps investigators should ask the passengers that survived this water landing what equipment they would want on future flights.
About This Airplane – N106US
According to the Federal Aviation Administration, US Airways flight 1549’s “tail number”, N106US, is registered to Wells Fargo Bank Northwest. The plane is 9 years old, having been delivered in 1999. There is already an extensive article about it at wikipedia.org !
Sunday, January 18 2009 Update…
Late yesterday, salvage crews raised flight 1549 from the Hudson River, and placed the plane onto a barge. The flight data recorder and cockpit voice recorder were recovered and sent to Washington for analysis.
Crews continue to search the Hudson for the missing left engine from the Airbus A320.
In an interview on Saturday with National Transportation Safety Board investigators, Captain Chesley Sullenberger indicated that he made the decision to ditch the plane on the Hudson River to avoid “catastrophic consequences” if they would have attempted to return to LaGuardia or make it to Teterboro Airport in heavily populated Northern New Jersey.
– Routing By Rumor