When US Airways Flight 1549 splashed into the Hudson River in January, the fuselage ruptured, sending water gushing into the cabin. Passengers, some with water up to their necks, struggled to reach exits. There weren't enough life rafts for everyone because two rafts in the rear of the plane were underwater.
Nevertheless, the performance of the Airbus A320 was praised by witnesses at the National Transportation Safety Board hearing Wednesday as a key factor in the survival of all 155 people aboard.
The plane descended into the Hudson at a rate more than three times what the structure of the A320 was designed to withstand on impact with water, expert witnesses told the board during the second of a three-day hearing on safety concerns that have arisen from the Jan. 15 accident.
Besides the ruptured fuselage, an engine also separated from a wing and sunk to the bottom of the river. But the fuel tanks remained intact, witnesses said, which helped to keep the plane afloat long enough for the passengers and crew to be rescued. Jet fuel is more bouyant than water.
"I think the performance of the airframe was instrumental in the survival of the occupants," said Jeff Gardlin, an aerospace engineer with the Federal Aviation Administration.
Despite the near catastrophe, Airbus officials were clearly proud of the plane's performance.
"The structure did its job. It protected the passsengers. I am certainly satisifed," said David Fitzsimmons, a senior structure expert for the French aircraft manufacturer.
Flight 1549 struck a flock of Canada geese shortly after taking off from New York's LaGuardia Airport and lost thrust in both engines. Captain Chesley Sullenberger told the board on Tuesday that he didn't try to return to LaGuardia because he thought, "I cannot afford to be wrong."
Instead of risking a crash in a densely populated area, he glided the plane into a landing near Manhattan's ferry terminals, to increase the chances of rescue.
Experts on bird-plane collisions told the board that LaGuardia has significantly reduced bird strikes on or near the airport in recent years, partly by killing geese on nearby Riker's Island.
However, there was nothing the airport could have done to prevent the collision that brought down Flight 1549, witnesses said. The airliner was climbing at about 2,800 feet and was nearly five miles away from the airport when it struck the birds. Airports don't have much ability to control birds and other wildlife beyond their property boundaries, they said.
Board member Robert Sumwalt suggested the answer may lie in equipping planes with some kind of device that repels or warns away birds.
Witnesses said researchers are trying learn more about bird eyesight and whether pulsating lights might attract their attention and warn them of a plane's approach. Another idea discussed was whether birds might be repelled by weather radar.
"Birds are not suicidal," said Richard Dolbeer, an Agriculture Department science adviser and expert on bird-plane collisions. "I have watched this many times -- they try to avoid aircraft, but they just don't see them soon enough."