Published January 14, 2015
The birds flew majestically, in perfect formation, and the co-pilot saw them coming.
For a moment, it looked like they would pass beneath US Airways Flight 1549, but when Capt. Chesley B. Sullenberger looked up, they were there in his windscreen. Big. Dark brown. Lots of them.
His first instinct was to duck.
Then there were thumps, a burning smell, and silence as both jet engines cut out.
For a moment, the Airbus A320 hung in the sky 3,000 feet above the Bronx, its engines knocked so completely dead that one flight attendant said it sounded like being in a library.
Investigators provided this dramatic new description Saturday of what unfolded on the flight in the five brief minutes between its takeoff from LaGuardia Airport on Thursday and its splashdown in the Hudson River.
The plane had been in the air for only 90 seconds when disaster struck. Air traffic controllers hadn't picked up the birds on their radar screens and were still giving climbing instructions when the pilot radioed that something had gone very wrong.
"Aaah, this is Cactus 1549," he said. "We lost thrust in both engines. We are turning back toward LaGuardia."
On the cockpit voice recorder, "the sound of thumps and a rapid decrease in engine sounds" could be heard, said National Transportation Safety Board member Kitty Higgins. The black box confirmed that both engines lost power simultaneously, she said.
The pilot announced a new destination within moments. LaGuardia was out. So was Teterboro Airport in New Jersey.
Sullenberger reasoned that his jet was "too low, too slow" and near too many tall buildings to reach any airport. And heading for Teterboro would mean risking a "catastrophic" crash in a populated neighborhood.
"We can't do it," he told air traffic control. "We're gonna be in the Hudson."
Higgins recounted those radio transmissions and gave a detailed summary of Sullenberger's testimony to the investigation team on Saturday and Sunday. She also recounted the NTSB's interview with the plane's first officer, Jeff Skiles, and three flight attendants.
Their accounts illustrated how quickly things deteriorated during the flight, and laid out the split-second command decisions that ultimately ensured that everyone aboard the plane survived.
The flight was supposed to have been the last leg of a four-trip day. The crew had begun the day in Pittsburgh, flown to Charlotte, N.C., then to LaGuardia, and were to head back to Charlotte in the afternoon. They got departure clearance at 3:25 p.m., and a minute later the jet was 700 feet in the air, heading north.
The birds came out of nowhere, Higgins said. They hadn't been on the radar screen of the air traffic controller who approved the departure, although other radar facilities later confirmed that their path intersected the jet as it climbed past 2,900 feet.
Back in the cabin, the passengers instantly knew something was wrong. They heard a thump, then eerie silence. A haze hung in the air. The flight attendants smelled something metallic burning.
"I think we hit a bird," said a passenger in first class.
In the cockpit, Sullenberger took over flying from Skiles, who had handled the takeoff, but had less experience in the Airbus.
"Your aircraft," the co-pilot said.
While the pilot quickly leveled off the plane to keep it from stalling and thought about where to land, Skiles kept trying to restart the engines. He also began working through a three-page list of procedures for an emergency landing. Normally, those procedures begin at 35,000 feet. This time, he started at 3,000.
Sullenberger made a sweeping left turn and took the gliding jet over the George Washington Bridge, and scanned the river, his best bet.
Pilots are trained to set down near a ship if they ditch, so they can be rescued before they drown or freeze to death in frigid seas. Sullenberger picked the perfect spot. The channel was 50 feet deep and clear of obstructions, but only minutes by boat from Manhattan's commuter ferry terminals.
It happened so fast, the pilots never had time to throw the aircraft's "ditch switch," which seals off vents and holes in the fuselage to make it more seaworthy.
Sullenberger issued a command over the intercom, "Brace for impact." Only 3 1/2 minutes had elapsed since the bird strike.
"Brace! Brace! Head down!" the flight attendants shouted to the passengers.
Security cameras on a Manhattan pier captured the spectacular landing. The jet came in easy, like it was coming down on land, and threw up spray as it slid on its belly.
Two flight attendants likened it to a hard landing — nothing more. There was one impact, no bounce, then a gradual deceleration.
"Neither one of them realized that they were in the water," Higgins said.
That changed quickly. The crew got two doors open. One water slide deployed automatically. The other had to be activated by hand. Passengers grabbed life preservers and seat cushions.
At the rear of the plane, a third flight attendant stopped a passenger from opening a rear door and letting in a gush of water, then made her way forward.
As the passengers made their way out onto the wings, she started to feel woozy. Only then did she notice that her leg had a severe cut — the most serious wound to anyone on board.
Sullenberger walked the cabin twice before abandoning ship.
He hadn't spoken to reporters yet on Saturday, but Higgins said, "He could not be more happy that he got everyone off the airplane safely."
The plane, too, was finally pulled from the river late Saturday night.
The bottom of the fuselage appeared to have been shredded and torn. Big chunks of loose paneling peeled away as it was lifted onto a barge — a sign, perhaps, of how close the jet came to breaking apart during a landing hard enough to rip metal, but slow and low enough to save 155 lives.
"Miracles happen because a lot of everyday things happen for years and years and years," Higgins said. "These people did their jobs, and they were trained to do their jobs."