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The pilot and co-pilot of the US Airways jetliner that ditched in the Hudson River Jan. 15 had only a few minutes to make and implement decisions that would save the lives of passengers and crew after both engines lost power following a bird strike.
Greg Dodson, a veteran pilot for Continental Airlines, flies Boeing 757 and 767, the latter aircraft on international routes.
The Airbus A320 that Chesley B. “Sully” Sullenberger was flying is smaller than the 767 that Dodson flies most of the time, but is closer to the 757 aircraft that Dodson occasionally flies.
“He maintained his cool, he didn’t panic, he didn’t have a lot of choices,” Dodson said. “It sounds like the co-pilot was flying and as soon as the emergency happened he took over. A lot of times that’s standard procedure, although it’s not required. It’s the captain’s discretion as to who runs the emergency checklist and who flies the airplane.”
The most important thing pilots learn in training is to fly the airplane. Don’t try to fly the airplane while going through a checklist, he added.
“From what I gather, he executed that flawlessly,” Dodson said. “He continued to fly the airplane while his co-pilot tried to restart the engines.”
Dodson said Sullenberger did a great job of delegating tasks in the cockpit. He put his focus outside the cockpit looking for a safe place to land. He thought the crew had less than two minutes to decide where to land. As soon as the aircraft lost power, it started to lose airspeed. To maintain airspeed, Sullenberger would have had to point the nose down to use kinetic energy. At about 3,000 feet, the point at which he may have struck the birds, the aircraft might have been going 210 to 250 knots (or about 242 to 287 mph) as it accelerated to climb to cruise altitude.
But, as soon as he lost the engine power, he had to push the nose down and the descent was probably about 2,000 feet per minute, Dodson said.
Continental Airlines procedures may differ from those of US Airways, so it’s possible that Sullenberger was following noise abatement procedures right after takeoff from LaGuardia Airport and might have been traveling a little more slowly, Dodson said.
Timing and luck may have played a part in the survival of all on board.
Dodson speculated, saying he wasn’t an Airbus pilot, that Sullenberger had a way to maintain hydraulic power so he could lower the flaps as he approached landing in the Hudson River. It’s possible the airplane landed at 130 to 160 knots (150 to 184 mph). He wanted to touch down at the lowest possible speed, but needed to have enough speed for the air going over the wings and tail fins to control the aircraft. And he didn’t want the aircraft to stall at 40 to 50 feet above the water, thereby creating an even harder landing.
Had the bird strike occurred another 30 seconds into the flight, the aircraft would have been over New York City’s northern suburbs and had fewer options. For example, turning back without power would have been a maneuver that would have jeopardized the aircraft’s ability to fly, Dodson said.
Choosing to land on the Hudson River gave Sullenberger more maneuvering room than he would have had had he tried to land at an airport. He had plenty of both width and length once he cleared the George Washington Bridge.
“It’s a whole lot easier to make an approach and touchdown over that big, wide, long water runway than it is to do a runway,” Dodson said.
Part of the reason the airplane didn’t break up when it hit the water was that it touched down at the lowest possible speed with the wings level, Dodson added. “And, short of that, once that plane touched the water, he’s along for the ride.”
Dodson said he has had numerous bird strikes including a few that have gone into his engines. Most of the strikes have been on the wing or the nose.
“Most of the time it’s just a thump,” he said. “Sometimes you see the bird and hear a thump.”
Sometimes it will dent the airplane, which is not critical. Most of the time birds in the engine do not cause the engine to fail; however, if you hit several or if you hit them at the right angle and they cause a vibration or damage to a turbine, they can cause the engine to fail. Dodson said he’s never lost an engine to a bird strike.
Part of the skill in Sullenberger’s airmanship, according to Dodson, was his ability to remain in control of the aircraft and to delegate the responsibility of trying to restart the engines to the co-pilot.
“As much as there is computerization and automation in these new airliners, there are still two pilots upfront who have to make decisions,” Dodson said. “And his ability to make those decisions and stay cool and calm about it saved those people’s lives. I think everybody is beginning to realize that pilots aren’t up there just flipping a bunch of buttons.”