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By now, many of you have seen the breaking news story: Associated Press, "All survive plane crash in NYC's Hudson River," 1/15/09. Synopsis: US Airways Airbus A320 airliner, scant minutes after take-off, collided with a flock of birds. Both engines failed -- only a couple of hundred feet above the Hudson River, during a nasty Arctic cold snap, with the water temperature down around 20°F (roughly -5°C).

During takeoff is just about the worst possible time to lose both engines. The plane isn't going that much faster than stall speed. If it slows down below stall speed, it tips over, falls out of the sky and everybody dies. With no engines, the only way to speed it up is to dive; pull out of that dive too late and you auger in nose first and everybody dies. Hit the water at flight speed and the plane breaks up, everybody dies. The only way to slow down effectively at the last minute is to pull up sharply on the stick; tail hits first while the nose is too high, plane pancakes and breaks apart, everybody dies. But according to witnesses, the pilot actually managed to keep it right on the ragged edge of stall speed and brought it down nice, even, level and intact in the Hudson River. There's an old test-pilot bit of swagger that says, "Paint stripes on a brick and I can fly it;" what the pilot of that plane just did isn't a whole lot different from that boast. You will never see it done any better than that.

Of course, once down, it promptly sank to the windows, submerging all or part of all but the front doors. In, as I said, 20°F water. And yet, before it sank, a swarm of Coast Guard boats and ferries got to it in time to open the doors, and the air crew managed to get everybody out so fast that the last of them cleared the door before the plane sank, and they did all of this without overloading and swamping any of the small craft that were evacuating the passengers. No visible sign of panic from anybody, just everybody doing what they needed to do. Including passengers who probably couldn't deplane that smoothly and quickly on a pleasant spring day on nice flat tarmac. There are so many things that could have gone wrong, so many people who could have screwed this up for everyone if they'd done anything wrong, that I get chills thinking about it.

That? That right there? Is what we call a really good day's work. Everybody gets to go home pretty satisfied with their work today.


( 36 comments — Leave a comment )
Jan. 15th, 2009 10:50 pm (UTC)
This adds new bitter amusement to Bush's whine at his last press conference the other day about "I dunno what I could have done differently in New Orleans....I guess I coulda landed the plane."
Jan. 15th, 2009 11:00 pm (UTC)
And so much of went wrong in New Orleans was because of fear. FDR wasn't exaggerating much when he said, "The only thing we have to fear, is fear, itself." If somebody, anybody (or worse everybody) screams, "Oh my god, we're all gonna die!," odds are, we're all gonna die. If, on the other hand, everybody says, "Well, this is gonna turn out to have been an interesting day at work. Better pay attention, get this one right"? Then they pretty much can be counted on to get it right.

It always amazes me just what human beings are capable of doing when they don't freeze up, freak out, or panic.
Jan. 15th, 2009 11:02 pm (UTC)

It always amazes me just what human beings are capable of doing when they don't freeze up, freak out, or panic.

Jan. 15th, 2009 11:02 pm (UTC)
I'm reminded of the Gimli Glider for some reason. :3
Jan. 15th, 2009 11:25 pm (UTC)
Reminds me of the Jakarta Incident: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jakarta_incident
Jan. 16th, 2009 08:28 am (UTC)
I had the same thought. Both examples of amazing pilotage.
Jan. 15th, 2009 11:07 pm (UTC)
As my father used to say, "Just like New York!"
... which was a bit odd, considering most of the times he said that, we were actually IN New York.

But yup, if those geese are going to renew their War On Humanity, they're going to have to find some place less on the ball to do it!
Jan. 15th, 2009 11:10 pm (UTC)
Sully the Pilot!
CNN is reporting that they believe the pilot's name is Chelsey B. "Sully" Sullenberber, III. He's a former Air Force pilot, and has over 40 years of flying experience. Here's a couple of links on him:


Btw, I'm willing to bet that he'll be making the rounds of TV and cable news shows by Monday at the latest. This is the kind of thing that can drown out all of the Joe the Plumber nonsense. I give you "Sully the Pilot"!

Edited at 2009-01-15 11:11 pm (UTC)
Jan. 15th, 2009 11:27 pm (UTC)
As I said, this is why you pay attention whenthe cute stewardess does the Emergency Flotation Device dance.

The odd thing for me was that I'd just finished reading an article about how major air travel had been, remarkably, incredibly safe in the past seven years -- since the Airbus crash in NJ in October 2001.

Mind you, I'd still say it's safe, given what this pilot managed to do. I'm also delighted that people were heading out to assist in rescue pretty much instantly.
Jan. 16th, 2009 01:34 am (UTC)
I agree that the crew of this aircraft did an excellent job. However, I think you're either misinformed about the aerodynamics of commercial airliners or being hyperbolic in your statements. Planes take off at speeds well above stall speed. Take-off is a dangerous time. Any manoeuvre increases drag and bleeds off speed. A stall does not result in the plane "tipping over and falling out of the sky." A stall results in the nose dipping and the plane descending. This increases speed to the point where the wings generate lift again. With enough altitude and careful flying even a large airliner can glide a remarkable distance. purplecat has mentioned the Gimli Glider and that's a good example. Slowing down a plane using flaps and spoilers allows, while less dramatic than the massive flare you describe, is routine. This was undoubtedly a dangerous situation but the aircraft and the crew were both designed to deal with it. The real story here, I think, is the way the crew must have kept the tower notified of their situation so that emergency crews could meet them and prepared the passengers and the way they managed the evacuation after the landing.

With any luck this incident might help stamp out some tired old lies we here:

-with modern technology pilots don't really do anything

-there's no such thing as a water landing, you'll just die, so you don't need to pay attention to the safety briefing or read the card

-flight attendants are just waitresses of the sky

Jan. 16th, 2009 04:56 am (UTC)
And another tired old story... Airbus aircraft are crap and fall apart...
Jan. 16th, 2009 05:12 am (UTC)
I hadn't heard that one. I don't hang around with many Boeing workers. :)
Jan. 16th, 2009 07:23 pm (UTC)
Actually, you don't hear it too much from the Boeing engineers I do know.

Tends to come from pilots who don't like the Airbus flight control system. To be fair to them, it USED to have a lot of problems.
Jan. 16th, 2009 02:07 am (UTC)
Ever notice how, when some disaster happens in a 'liberal blue state' location, folks pull together and do what needs doin'? I mean, look at 9/11; civilians just stepped up and helped out with what needed doin while staying out of the way of the rescue folks. Very cool!

And yet, for the last 8 years, we've been told that Americans aren't capable of surviving in the big scary world and have to be herded, suppressed and taken care of by Big Brüdder.
Jan. 16th, 2009 02:23 am (UTC)
They have the plane tied to a dock in Lower Manhattan. I can't wait for them to fish it out of the drink and examine it. My father was wondering if they'll fly it again.
Jan. 16th, 2009 02:26 pm (UTC)
Probably not. The stresses of the water landing would have introduced all kinds of fatigue on the airframe.
Jan. 16th, 2009 02:46 am (UTC)
I hate to nitpick, well, I mean, I hesitate before nitpicking here, but (pure) water freezes at 32°F ... best you can hope for is perhaps 22°F in the ocean at depth. The air temperature in this emergency might have been 20°F, but the water was certainly not; else it would have been ice. For once I find no reason to doubt the mass media: "air temperature around 20 degrees and the water 41." One presumes that, rater than being ignorant savages or a tool of The Conspiracy, they were merely catering to a US audience and those figures were in degrees Fahrenheit.
Jan. 16th, 2009 04:11 am (UTC)
At STP (Standard Temperature and Presure), water freezes at 32 degrees F, or 0 degrees Celsius. Depending on the impurities in the water, that can range up and down a fair bit. Add to that, water that is in motion will also stay in a liquid state to much lower temperatures.

Jan. 16th, 2009 02:04 pm (UTC)
None of which make me think it's likely that the Hudson River by New York City was significantly below 32F. I was gonna poke Brad on that myself, but of course was reading ahead to make sure it wasn't going to be a duplicate first.
Jan. 16th, 2009 02:27 pm (UTC)
Does the Hudson really count as "water"?
Jan. 16th, 2009 03:44 pm (UTC)
A little Googling suggests they're just on the edge of re-opening bathing beaches along the Hudson. So yeah, the water content is actually quite high.
Jan. 16th, 2009 05:59 am (UTC)
Every pilot learns what to do when the engine(s) quit working suddenly, and it's no weekend seminar to be learned once and promptly forgotten. The sequence of actions is drilled into the pilot at every opportunity. I've never bothered to count the number of times I've practiced an engine-out landing, which entails hastily choosing a nearby field to glide into and coming within a few feet of the ground before nailing the gas (so to speak) and climbing back into the sky. I've practiced this maneuver more than any other, save taking off and landing (and those two have to be done on every flight, of course, hopefully in a 1:1 ratio).

Today's event was one of the things that the pilot had been training, re-training, and re-training again for the duration of his forty-year career. I don't mean to detract from his performance today--it was magnificent--but this is the one kind of accident that every pilot is ready to deal with at any time.

None of this is meant to detract in any way from the immense sense of satisfaction and pride that we can all feel in seeing a group of fellow men and women--flight crew, passengers, ferry-boat pilots, emergency workers, and everyone else who was involved--pull together in a bad situation and all do the right thing for the common good. I could not be more pleased with how well this turned out.
Jan. 16th, 2009 07:04 am (UTC)
...hopefully in a 1:1 ration

Oh, there's always a landing... :)
Jan. 16th, 2009 04:59 pm (UTC)
Ha! My favorite quote is still "A good landing is one you can walk away from. A great landing is one where you can use the aircraft again."
Jan. 16th, 2009 01:14 pm (UTC)
My cousin's boyfriend recently experienced his first landing having had many takeoffs... (he's in the paras). The pilot of course presumably on very rarely abandons the plane before it hits the ground.
Jan. 16th, 2009 02:09 pm (UTC)
I believe at that level they get recurrent simulator training every 6 months, too (which usually specializes in nasty scenarios; that being the point of expensive simulators, you can risk things that are dangerous in a real airplane). (I know for sure people who work for a FedEx contract hauler flying Caravans do.)

The heavies don't glide as well as general avaiation planes generally. Plus of course knowing 155 lives depend on your getting it right will make a difference.

But of course it's one of the most-rehearsed emergencies, definitely. Not like having one wing engine fall off a DC10, or having ALL your hydraulic lines cut on a DC10 (funny how the unique scenarios seem to cluster around those DC10s).
Jan. 16th, 2009 07:05 am (UTC)
Ever since I heard that everyone survived and that everything went text book perfect, I've been waiting to hear the conspiracy theory on it.
Will it be that it was anti environmentalist?
Americans against foreign companies (Airbus)?
Someone trying to hurt the airline industry?
Some other idea that is even crazier?
Jan. 16th, 2009 02:20 pm (UTC)
It was a suicide squad of Jihadist Geese!
Jan. 16th, 2009 07:59 pm (UTC)
I remember reading that somebody had made a remote-control cockroach by wiring electrodes into its brain ... how much harder could a bird be? Oh, look, pigeons have been done. So, no, not suicidal geese, guided stealth weaponized geese.
Jan. 17th, 2009 05:21 am (UTC)
Hick, have you discussed with your doctor yet that thing I chewed you out over not done so, when we were backstage at Archon? Because I think you're doing it again.
Jan. 19th, 2009 12:33 am (UTC)
Yes, not to worry; there were some useful (if predictable) suggestions, and all is well.

I was trying to be funny with the remote-control attack geese, but I'm guessing I failed. I do prefer the straight-faced reducto ad absurdo approach to conspiracy theories, but perhaps I shouldn't be encouraging people.

Jan. 16th, 2009 05:02 pm (UTC)
It was the flotation device manufacturers!

I've been told by a private pilot friend that it's been 64 years since there was a water landing with survivors, so The Powers That Be were considering eliminating the flotation devices as "unnecessary."

If you want a conspiracy theory, you can ALWAYS find one. :-D
Jan. 17th, 2009 05:05 pm (UTC)
Water landings/crashes with survivors
That's clearly wrong - among other things, there was the Air Florida Flight 90 (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Air_Florida_Flight_90) crash in DC back in 1982 that had 5 survivors. A flotation device (life vest?) played a role in that one; other devices might have helped had more people survived the crash and had more time to evacuate the wreckage.

There was also a runway overrun (http://aviation-safety.net/database/record.php?id=19820123-0) at Logan 10 days later that wound up with the airplane in the water; the plane broke up, but only 2 people died in that one. In searching for that one, I found a previous accident (http://www.celebrateboston.com/disasters/aviation/crash1961.htm) back in 1961 that wound up with the plane in 8 feet of water; in that case, all the passengers survived, but one rescuer died. A 1960 bird strike (http://www.celebrateboston.com/disasters/aviation/crash1960.htm) incident there caused a crash into the water with 9 survivors.

That's just what I found with a quick search for a couple of incidents I remembered; I'm sure there must be more examples worldwide.
Jan. 17th, 2009 05:15 pm (UTC)
Previous anon comment was me..
Dave W.
Jan. 16th, 2009 05:26 pm (UTC)
I remember when Air Florida 90 went into the Potomac. I realize the circumstances were a little different, but this could have been so much worse. That cat is one hell of a pilot. I read that he did two sweeps up the aisle to make sure there weren't any stragglers before exiting the plane after everyone else had evacuated.
Jan. 17th, 2009 05:22 am (UTC)
Yeah, I saw that too. Him and the co-pilot. Because that was part of their job. Heck of a world we live in, isn't it?
( 36 comments — Leave a comment )