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Nearly Impossible Landing on New York’s Hudson River Explained

In 2009, Captain Chesley Sullenberger made an almost impossible landing on New York's Hudson River and saved the 155 people on board.

Nearly Impossible Landing on New York’s Hudson River Explained
Flight 1549 touches down in the Hudson River. Air Documentaries/YouTube

In this article, we revisit "The Miracle on the Hudson," the 2009 ditching of an aircraft carrying 155 souls into New York City's Hudson River, which separates Manhattan from New Jersey.

On January 15, 2009, US Airways Flight 1549 was scheduled to fly from New York City's LaGuardia Airport (LGA) to the Charlotte Douglas Airport (CLT) in Charlotte, North Carolina. The flight was then scheduled to go on to the Seattle-Tacoma airport.

Airbus A320
Airbus A320. Source: Pedro Aragão/Wikimedia Commons

The plane was an Airbus A320-214 powered by two GE Aviation CFM56-5B4/P turbofan engines. At the helm was pilot Chesley B. Sullenberger, a 57-year-old former fighter pilot who had been a commercial airline pilot since 1980. Logging 19,663 total flight hours, and 4,765 hours in the A320, Sullenberger also piloted gliders.

CFM56-5B4/P turbofan engine
CFM56-5B4/P turbofan engine. Source: Altair78/Wikimedia Commons

Next to him in the cockpit was First Officer Jeffrey Skiles, 49. While he had 20,727 total flight hours, Skiles was relatively new to the A320, with only 37 hours in the aircraft. Also on board were 150 passengers and three flight attendants.

The ascent

At 3:24 p.m., Flight 1549 was cleared for takeoff to the northeast from LaGuardia's Runway #4, with Skiles at the controls. At 3:25 p.m., the crew reported being at 700 feet (210 m) and climbing, and Sullenberger remarked to Skiles, "What a view of the Hudson today."

Path of Flight 1549
Path of Flight 1549. Source: ChrisnHouston/Wikimedia Commons

At 3:27 p.m., at an altitude of 2,818 feet (859 m) and at a distance of 4.5 miles (7.2 km) north-northwest of LaGuardia, the plane struck a flock of Canada geese, some of whom were sucked into the plane's two jet engines. Flames erupted from the engines before they shut down completely.

Canada geese are not small animals. They are up to 43 inches (110 cm) in length, have a wingspan of up to 73 inches (185 cm), and can weigh as much as 14 pounds (6.5 kg).

In the cockpit, Sullenberger took the controls while Skiles consulted the procedure for restarting the engines. Due to the plane's momentum, it continued to climb for a time, reaching 3,060 feet (930 m), before nosing over and descending at an ever-increasing rate.

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At 3:27 p.m., Sullenberger radioed a mayday to New York Terminal Radar Approach Control (TRACON), saying, "... hit birds. We've lost thrust on both engines. We're turning back towards LaGuardia."

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The air traffic controller ordered all departures at LaGuardia to be stopped, and he directed Sullenberger to land on that airport's Runway #13. Sullenberger radioed back, "Unable", and he next requested permission to land at New Jersey's Teterboro Airport. Teterboro's Runway #1 was cleared for him.

Going down

Realizing that the plane wouldn't make it to either Teterboro or LaGuardia, Sullenberger radioed, "We can't do it ... We're gonna be in the Hudson." Air traffic controllers immediately radioed the Coast Guard to warn vessels in the Hudson River.

George Washington Bridge
George Washington Bridge. Source: Air Documentaries/YouTube

At 3:30 p.m. on that Thursday afternoon, there were lots of people driving over New York's iconic George Washington Bridge when Flight 1549 thundered overhead at just 900 feet (270 m). Onboard the aircraft, passengers were told to "Brace for impact."

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At 3:31 p.m., at a speed of 140 mph (230 km/h) Flight 1549 touched down on the Hudson River at a spot roughly in line with New York City's West 50th Street.

Sullenberger touched down tail first at the exact optimal angle of 11 degrees. Any steeper and the fuselage would have been torn apart. Sullenberger also managed to maintain airspeed without dropping the plane's nose. This would have caused the engines to hit the water first, breaking the fuselage apart.

After the plane came to rest, Sullenberger and Skiles opened the cockpit door, and Sullenberger gave the order to evacuate. The four over-wing window exits were opened and their inflatable slides deployed.

Someone, either a flight attendant or a passenger, opened a rear exit door, and this allowed water to enter the plane. Water was already rushing in through a hole in the fuselage caused by the crash, and through the plane's cargo doors, which had popped open due to the impact.

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Passengers standing on wings
Passengers standing on wings. Source: Air Documentaries/YouTube

Everyone out

As the plane began sinking into the water tail first, all passengers, even one in a wheelchair, were outside the plane, with some standing on the slides, some standing on the wings, and some bobbing in the water. The wings were slippery due to leaking jet fuel, and the air and water temperatures were frigid. The air temperature was 19°F (−7°C) and the water was 41°F (5°C).

Besides managing to land on the river, Sullenberger had also managed to land near boats, and just 3 minutes and forty seconds after the crash the first of several NY Waterway ferries arrived, followed by U.S. Coast Guard boats. Sullenberger advised rescuers to attend to those standing on the wings first, as the slides could detach and become life rafts.

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Passengers standing on rafts
Passengers standing on rafts. Source: Air Documentaries/YouTube

Docks along the river were soon flooded by New York City firefighters and police. Helicopters circled overhead and divers jumped into the water. By 3:55 p.m., the water inside the plane was higher than the headrests, and the last man rescued, Captain Sullenberger, assured rescuers that there was no one left on the plane.

Ferries begin evacuating passengers
Ferries begin evacuating passengers. Source: Air Documentaries/YouTube

Most of the passengers were taken to the New Jersey side of the river, where 78 passengers were treated at hospitals. Only two passengers needed to be kept overnight.

Scuba divers enter submerged plane
Scuba divers enter submerged plane. Source: Air Documentaries/YouTube

The aftermath

New York State Governor David Paterson called the ditching "a Miracle on the Hudson" and the name stuck." President George W. Bush said he was "inspired by the skill and heroism of the flight crew," and President-elect Barack Obama described the landing as "heroic and graceful," and he invited the flight crew to his inauguration.

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On January 22, 2009, the Guild of Air Pilots and Air Navigators awarded the crew its rarely bestowed Master's Medal for outstanding aviation achievement. New York City's Mayor, Michael Bloomberg, presented the crew with the keys to the city.

On February 1, 2009, at Super Bowl XLIII, the crew received a standing ovation. That year, Chesley Sullenberger threw the ceremonial first pitch of the 2009 Major League Baseball season at San Francisco. His Giant's jersey bore the name "Sully" and the number "155" which represented the number of people who had been on board the plane.

Following the accident, one passenger whose eyes were damaged by exposure to jet fuel must now wear glasses. US Airways sent each passenger a letter of apology, $5,000 in compensation for their lost luggage, and a refund of their tickets. It was reported that passengers received an offer of $10,000 each in return for not suing the airline.

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A National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) investiation was joined by their European counterparts, the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) and the Bureau d'Enquêtes et d'Analyses pour la Sécurité de l'Aviation Civile (BEA). Investigators found bird remains in both of the plane's engines.

Using flight simulations, the NTSB determined that had the plane attempted to return to LaGuardia or divert to Teterboto, it would have crashed, with loss of life not only to those on board, but to those on the ground as well.

On May 4, 2010, the NTSB issued its final report, which identified four factors as contributing to the positive outcome:

  • Good decision-making and teamwork by the cockpit crew, including the decisions to immediately turn on the auxiliary power unit (APU) and to ditch in the Hudson
  • The fact that the A320 is certified for over water operations and carried slide rafts and life vests
  • The performance of the flight crew during the evacuation
  • The proximity of vessels to the crash site.

The NTSB report also made 34 recommendations which included:

  • That engines be tested for resistance to bird strikes at low speeds
  • The development of checklists for dual-engine failures at low altitude
  • Changes to checklist design
  • Improved pilot training for water landings
  • The inclusion of life vests on all flights, regardless of route.

On March 3, 2010, after 30 years of flying commercial aircraft, Chesley Sullenberg retired from US Airways. On his final flight, he was reunited with Jeff Skiles and a number of passengers from Flight 1549. The Flight 1549 aircraft, tail number N106US, is currently on display at the Carolinas Aviation Museum in Charlotte, North Carolina.

Chesley Sullenberger published a memoir of his experience entitled, Highest Duty: My Search for What Really Matters, and in 2016, it was adapted into the feature film Sully, directed by Clint Eastwood and starring Tom Hanks as Sullenberger and Aaron Eckhart as Jeff Skiles.

Canada goose
Canada goose. Source: USFWS Mountain-Prairie/Wikimedia Commons

While people fared well in the accident, Canada geese did not. Later in 2009, 1,235 Canada geese at 17 locations around New York City were killed, and an additional 1,739 goose eggs were destroyed. To date, over 70,000 birds have been killed to prevent a similar accident from happening.

Flight 1549 had a lasting impact on its passengers, and one, Rob Kolodjay, who survived the crash along with his adult son Jeff, said, "Enjoy life. Live for today, don't live for tomorrow. My life has been touched by a miracle, so I have to give back to something." That might be good advice for us all.

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