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This is Your Captain Speaking…

Captain Bogs:

This is your Captain speaking:

In response to overwhelming public demand (that’s you, Josh), here are my thoughts to the recent water landing, called ditching by those of us in the industry, in the Hudson River by a US Air A-320.

First of all, let me add my praise to Capt Sullenberger. He did an outstanding job putting the plane down in the river without loss of life, and really without major injuries to almost anyone. A couple of broken legs was all the human cost of an accident that took the total loss of of an airframe.
Unbelievable!

That being said…..

Any accident has a chain of events that lead to the accident. This one was no different. I am not going to go into the the anti-gun, anti-hunting environment we find ourselves in. Because waterfowl, especially large waterfowl like the geese, were so heavily over hunted in the early part of of the 20th century, they were rightly given protection from hunters which were the only effective predators the big birds have now that almost all large, meat eating animals have been eliminated from all populated areas of North America. The subsequent population explosion in goose and to a lesser extent crane populations throughout the US are easy to see. Here where I live, my barber’s father was instrumental in reestablishing the goose population in the area. The birds have gone from 15 animals in the early 40s to many thousands today. We live in central Minnesota, and we are a nesting and transition point in waterfowl migrations. The Canadian geese transit the area on their way north in spring and south in the fall, with other goose species staying here during the summer season, causing my dog to happily chase them from the shoreline and into the lakes. (We try to keep him on a leash when the goslings are too small to evade him. To my knowledge, he has never caught a single wild animal. I’m sure he would starve to death if he had to catch his own food.) Air traffic is sparse, and the airfield is run by folks who know the problems presented by a large goose (and other bird) population. They keep the airfield and its surrounding airspace as clear as they can, and they do a good job of it.

This leads us the the chilly winter day in New York with an A-320 taking off from the horribly out-of-date airport on northern Long Island called La Guardia. Waterfowl migrate only as far south as they have to to find food, and the fields, marshes, and garbage dumps of Long Island give them a reason to stay there all winter. As their population has increased, so does the likelihood of airplane/bird interaction. But waterfowl, especially geese, are easy to see. They are large birds which fly in formations which can number into the thousands, so large, in fact, that they can be seen on radar easier than a B-2. And in this case, the formation of birds was indeed seen in the cockpit by the pilot flying the plane. For some reason, he was unable to avoid the birds. I really do not know why they flew into the geese. It may have been just a case of not seeing them as the danger they really are. Bird strikes are just so common in aviation that they are often seen as just a nuisance rather than a danger. (But when I was in pilot training we lost an instructor when he and another instructor hit a sandhill crane while flying a T-37, a slow (for a jet) small aircraft. The bird hit just below the canopy, breaking it and penetrating into the cockpit. It hit the pilot in the face and chest, inflicting fatal injuries. The other pilot took over control of the jet and landed it safely and quickly, but it was too late for the first pilot.)

Back to the US Air accident. After the bird strike, Capt Sullenberger took the jet and considered his options. Not many of those. He was too low to do anything other than look for a place to land, which he found in the Hudson River. Conditions were ideal for a successful ditching. He was going downriver, so the current was helping lower the difference between the speed of the jet and the water’s surface. There was no wind and therefore no waves, and the jet would have it’s longitudinal axis aligned with its flightpath, all good things. There was not enough time to prep the cabin or even brief the flight attendants about what was about to happen, all bad things. No matter, call over the intercom to brace for impact, and set the plane on the water. Good touchdown, normal to-be-expected hard landing as the engines dug into the water, and a straight run-out on the water. He managed to make the ditching survivable, all one can really expect from a emergency landing.

The normal sequence of events for a ditching is for the jet to sink to the wings while the cabin has no or little water in it. The main emergency exits should be the two doors forward and the two doors aft where there are emergency slides, which double as rafts in the water. The overwing exits should not be used, since the jet may sink fairly quickly as the fuselage fills with water. In this case, the jet settled down nose-high, with the aft doors awash. This precluded the use of the aft two rafts, cutting the available flotation to the two rafts forward. In this case, in a river filled with ferries which were able to respond immediately to the crash site, the two aft rafts were not needed. Passengers exited through the overwing exits and lined up on the wings. The jet had only the two forward exits open, so the fuselage did not fill rapidly and the jet stayed afloat until all people had been rescued. Major kudos to the master mariners who so quickly and skillfully deployed their ships and boats to rescue the people from the plane. Their performance reflect great credit on themselves and the city they serve.

So a major success. But the aft exit problem is serious. A ditching in the open ocean will have to have all 4 rafts available if all the passengers and crew are to have a chance to survive. I flew many flights over the Caribbean from Miami to Puerto Rico or to northern South America, and if something had happened en route that would have put us into the water I would have needed everything I could get to give everyone alive (assuming I could have done as well as Sully did here in New York.) The crews must be able to deploy all the survival equipment the jet has, or a ditching will have the same situation the Titanic found herself in where there is a choosing of who will live and who must die. We no longer live in a world where that is acceptable.

Modern jets do not undergo water landings as a part of their certification process. Models are used to predict the performance of the airframe configuration in the water. Here we have an actual controlled water landing which I’m sure Airbus will look at very closely. They may very well have quite a problem.

2 Responses

  1. Thanks! It was as insightful as I’d hoped it would be. It’s always nice to get an unfiltered perspective, especially since you raised some new and intriguing points that (as far as I know) have been generally neglected or not touched on at all in the coverage of this — especially the problem about the aft rafts, which I haven’t seen mentioned at all and which seems to deserve more consideration.

  2. The issue I was hoping the Capn would expound upon is how does the “oh shit!” factor play into the outcome of this situation? Are commercial airline pilots trained to the extent that even if such a unlikely event occurs they just aren’t going to panic. Or would you say that this particular pilots reaction to the situation was unique in his apparent instinctual response. Obviously, he is to be praised for his successful efforts in saving everyone on the plane, but was this guy unique in the fact that he wasn’t letting the severity of the situation get to his head? Or all most, if not all, pilots trained to just focus on whatever ever the task may be at hand?

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