State News

Investigation begins in plane's splash landing

Posted January 16, 2009 3:21 p.m. EST
Updated January 16, 2009 8:39 p.m. EST

— Federal investigators said Friday the left engine of the US Airways jetliner that ditched into the Hudson River Thursday was missing, and reports emerged that the pilot who safely landed the aircraft had considered an emergency landing at two airports.

Police divers were using sonar to find the engine, which was believed to be in the water.

"Once we get the flight data recorder it will give us the radar so we can figure out where the engine separated from the plane," said NTSB spokesman Peter Knudson.

As investigators scoured the wreckage of the Airbus A320, many of the 155 people aboard recounted survivor stories and hailed the pilot as a hero who delivered them from certain death.

"The captain of the plane was the man," said Mark Hood, of Charlotte. "He was very gifted. With the help of God and the good Lord guiding his hand, he brought us in (safely)."

Hood said the pilot, Chesley B. "Sully" Sullenberger III, was "a true leader" because he was the last person off the plane and the last person out of the life rafts and onto a ferry.

"This pilot ... is the reason my daughter – my 2½-year-old – has a dad and my wife still has a husband," said Brad Wentzell, of Charlotte.

Sullenberger was in good spirits and showing no outward signs of stress from the ordeal, a pilots union official said.

His wife, in an interview outside their California home, called him "a pilot's pilot" and said talk of him being a national hero was "a little weird."

A person briefed on Sullenberger's radio communications said the pilot considered emergency landings at two airports after his plane suffered a double bird strike, but twice told air controllers he was unable to make them. He told controllers he planned to go into the river, instead. The person spoke on condition of anonymity because of the ongoing investigation.

Air traffic controllers first gave Sullenberger directions to return to New York City's LaGuardia Airport, but he replied, "unable." Then he saw the Teterboro airstrip in the northern New Jersey suburbs, got clearance to go there, but then again responded, "unable." He then said he was going into the river.

It was not immediately clear when the engine broke off, but such scenarios can happen in bird strikes.

If the engine takes in a very large bird – or several birds at once – they could break several fan blades, causing an imbalance in the engine's rotation and severe vibrations, said Kevin Poormon, who tests the ability of aircraft engines to withstand bird strikes.

If the engine doesn't shut down right away, those vibrations conceivably could be strong to cause the engine to come loose from its mounting, Poormon said.

In a photograph of the plane as it approached the river, it appeared to have both engines.

Passengers were effusive in their praise for how Sullenberger, co-pilot Jeff Skiles and crew handled the landing and evacuation.

Hood said he felt a jolt ripple through the jet as though a baseball bat hit the engine when the plane was close to the George Washington Bridge.

"I think everyone was holding their breath, making their peace, saying their prayers," he said.

Passenger Billy Campbell said he approached Sullenberger while they were standing on a rescue raft in the frigid cold.

"I leaned over and grabbed his arm, and I said I just want to thank you on behalf of all of us," Campbell told NBC's "Today" show. "He just said, 'You're welcome.'"'

National Transportation Safety Board investigators were focused on recovering the plane's black box and interviewing the crew about the accident.

The aircraft, built in 1999, was tethered to a pier on the tip of lower Manhattan on Friday, about four miles from where it touched down. Only a gray wing tip could be seen jutting out of the water.

Crews of NYPD divers went underwater Friday to inspect the belly of the plane to make sure it was stable enough to lift and to secure a bed of ropes underneath it.

Police and emergency crews also pulled about 15 pieces of carry-on luggage, the door of the plane, sheared pieces of metal and flotation devices from the water.

Arnold Witte, president of the Donjon Marine salvage company, said it was unclear whether the plane would be pulled out in one or several segments, or whether it could be raised on Friday.

"We want to get the plane recovered as soon as possible, but we want to do it a safe way," NTSB spokeswoman Kitty Higgins said.

Federal Aviation Administration spokeswoman Laura Brown said there was no immediate indication the incident was "anything other than an accident."

The plane, bound for Charlotte, took off from LaGuardia Airport at 3:26 p.m. Less than a minute later, the pilot reported a "double bird strike" and said he needed to return to LaGuardia, said Doug Church, a spokesman for the National Air Traffic Controllers Association.

If the accident was hard to imagine, so was the result: Aside from one victim with two broken legs, there were no other reports of serious injuries to the 155 people aboard.

Passengers quickly realized something was terrifyingly wrong.

"I heard an explosion, and I saw flames coming from the left wing, and I thought, 'This isn't good,'" said Dave Sanderson, 47, who was heading home to Charlotte from a business trip.

"We heard a pop, and the pop was big and it smelled," Wentzell said. "There was a fire behind us. The pilot saved our lives."

"We said, 'Oh my God, this (pilot) is following the river, and all of a sudden, we were at 1,000 feet, 500 feet, 250 feet," said Carl Bazarian, of Amelia Plantation, S.C. "We're following the river, and he said, 'Brace for impact.'

"We were hitting the Hudson River with full impact, and we hit – boom – and then we stopped," Bazarian said. "Then we looked out ... We all wanted to see what would happen, whether we we're going to die or going to live."

Campbell was sitting in the back of the plane when it landed on the water.

"The water was rushing in through the window seams, and we couldn't get the back exit open," he said. "That scared us a little bit, and we tried and the flight attendant did a wonderful job trying, but then (she) finally turned and said immediately, 'Go to the wing (exit).'"

The 150 passengers and five crew members were forced to escape as the plane submerged in 36-degree water. Dozens stood on the aircraft's wings on a 20-degree day, one of the coldest of the winter, as commuter ferries and Coast Guard vessels converged to rescue them.

"Nobody panicked. It was women and children first," Bazarian said.

Barry Leonard, chief executive of Goldsboro-based Ex-cell Home Fashions, said one of the pilots gave him the shirt off his back to stay warm after Leonard had jumped into the icy river to escape the plane.

"I started swimming, thinking maybe I should swim to shore, but after about a minute, I realized there was no way I could survive doing that as cold as the water was. So I swam back, and the raft was out by then, so I jumped into the raft," said Leonard, who suffered a broken sternum.

"I was obviously extremely cold, and one of the pilots gave me his shirt and took it off his back and put it on mine to keep me warm. (He) actually just kind of hugged me to help me stay warm," he said.

Sanderson said he had frost bite in one leg, but he called it a fair trade to be able to see his family again.

"I think there's a lesson to be learned from this in how to handle it," he said. "If (pilots are) trained correctly and handle it correctly, you can survive (a plane crash)."

At a City Hall ceremony Friday to honor those who came to the aid of the stranded passengers, Mayor Michael Bloomberg said Sullenberger's actions "inspired people around the city, and millions more around the world."

Bloomberg planned to present the pilot with the key to the city.

Lorrie Sullenberger and her two daughters emerged from her Danville, Calif., home Friday and called her husband "a pilot's pilot who "loves the art of the airplane."

Sullenberger, 57, of Danville, Calif., is a former Air Force fighter pilot who has flown for US Airways for 29 years. He also runs a safety consulting firm.

Lorrie Sullenberger said hearing her husband's story "was really a shock. ... My husband said over the years that it's highly unlikely for any pilot to ever have any incident in his career, let alone something like this."

She called talk of her husband being a national hero "a little weird."

The pilot's sister, Mary Margaret Wilson, said she had a gut feeling her brother was at the controls when she heard a passenger plane safely landed in the Hudson River.

"When I first saw it on TV, they were saying it was an amazing landing, like one in a million. And I thought to myself, 'That's something my brother could do,'" said Wilson, a Dallas resident.

James Ray, a spokesman for the U.S. Airline Pilots Association, said he spoke with Sullenberger on Friday and described him as being "in good shape physically, mentally and in good spirits."

Ray said the flight crew was resting and likely would meet with investigators later Friday or Saturday. He said the crew has been asked not talk to the press about the accident until after the NTSB investigation is complete.

From 1990 to 2007, there were nearly 80,000 reported incidents of birds striking nonmilitary aircraft, about one strike for every 10,000 flights, according to the Federal Aviation Administration and the Department of Agriculture.

Thursday's river landing took place almost exactly 27 years after an Air Florida plane bound for Tampa crashed into the Potomac River just after takeoff from Washington National Airport, killing 78 people. Five people on that flight survived.