On January 15 2009, US Airways Flight 1549 took off from LaGuardia Airport in New York for Charlotte, North Carolina. In less than 20 minutes, the plane was “landed” on the Hudson river. The story is now told in Sully: Miracle on the Hudson and here is a breakdown of the flight from departure to landing.
US Airways Flight 1549, embarking on the final leg of a four-day multi-city journey to Charlotte, North Carolina, begins boarding at New York’s LaGuardia Airport.
On board are a full complement of 150 passengers and five crew, including pilot Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger, a veteran of over 40 years and nearly 20,000 flying hours, and co-pilot Jeff Skiles, who had only recently completed his training on the Airbus A320. The trip is scheduled to take around two hours.
The A320 begins its acceleration along the 7,000 feet of one of LaGuardia’s twin runways. Almost fully laden, and weighing around 150,000lbs, it reaches its take-off speed of 170mph and begins its ascent.
The pilots contact air traffic control and then, at an altitude of 700 feet and travelling at around 230mph, Flight 1549 is cleared to continue its ascent to 15,000 feet.
The plane is at an altitude of 3,000 feet directly above The Bronx and travelling at 250mph when it encounters a flock of Canada geese. The birds, travelling at about 50mph, are sucked into both of the plane’s two CFM56-5B engines, which flame out and fail immediately, though miraculously they do not disintegrate. The animals are instantly liquefied, transformed into a thin mist of what is known to air-crash investigators as “bird slurry”.
Air traffic controller Patrick Harten, based at New York’s Air Traffic Control Center in Long Island, eight miles from LaGuardia, contacts Flight 1549, whose call-sign is “Cactus”, to request a routine course-correction.
Sullenberger, who has just taken over the flight from his co-pilot, who has spent the previous seconds trying and failing to restart the engines, responds. “Ah, this is, uh, Cactus 1549, hit birds. We lost thrust in both engines. We’re turning back towards LaGuardia.” Harten confirms and contacts LaGuardia to clear both runways for an emergency landing.
Sullenberger quickly considers his options. With no thrust and perilously little altitude he decides that a turn and glide back to LaGuardia is not a viable option. “I am not sure if we can make any runway,” he tells Harten. “What’s over to our right? Anything in New Jersey? Maybe Teterboro?”
A few seconds later the controller comes with confirmation. “Cactus 1549, turn right two eight zero. You can land Runway 1 at Teterboro.” But by now Sullenberger had decided that this too was not viable. “We can’t do it.”
Harten: “O.K. Which runway would you like at Teterboro?”
Sullenberger: “We’re gonna be in the Hudson.”
Harten: “I’m sorry, say again, Cactus?”
Without thrust Sullenberger begins his glide towards the Hudson. The only major vertical obstacle in his way is the George Washington Bridge, which Sullenberger clears with about 900 feet to spare.
Sullenberger makes his only announcement to the passengers. “Brace for impact.” Inside the cabin the flight attendants repeat the instruction. “Brace! Brace! Heads down! Stay down!”
With its nose raised and travelling at 150mph US Airways Flight 1549 completes an unpowered ditching in the Hudson, ironically just opposite the Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum, just three and a half minutes after its take-off from LaGuardia.
Sullenberger gives the evacuate command and the crew begin to remove the passengers, including one in a wheelchair, onto the plane’s wings through the four mid-cabin emergency exits as the plane slowly begins to take on water. There is no panic, and some passengers stay inside the now gently drifting airliner to hand life vests to those already on the wings. The water temperature in the river is a chilly 2C, but a few passengers, wary of an explosion, dive in and swim away from the downed aircraft.
The first rescue vessel, NY Waterway ferry Thomas Jefferson, commanded by Captain Vincent Lombardi, takes just four minutes to reach the plane and begin offloading passengers. Captain Sullenberger walks the entire length of the flooded aircraft twice to check that no passengers remain inside before exiting the plane. Seventy-eight people are treated for minor injuries and hypothermia.
It is only the fourth time that a commercial airliner has been intentionally landed on water. Weeks later, New York State Governor David Paterson says, “We had a Miracle on 34th Street. I believe now we have had a Miracle on the Hudson.”
These 208 seconds were just the beginning: Sully’s trials did not end with the safe landing. Experts accused him of reckless endangerment. Go see Sully: Miracle on the Hudson to find out how he proved them wrong.