A successful aircraft ditching is a rare maneuver, which many consider nearly impossible to carry out and equally difficult to survive. But, on January 15, 2009, at around 3:30pm, US Airways flight 1549, an A320 aircraft, proved that the impossible sometimes happens and that it can go impossibly well.
After a flock of birds disabled the engines, Captain Chesley Burnett ‘Sully’ Sullenberger successfully ditched the aircraft on the Hudson River, about 8.5 miles from its point of departure at LaGuardia Airport, New York.
The flight was destined for Charlotte Douglas International Airport in North Carolina, and was only two minutes into the flight when the bird strike occurred. The flight was at full capacity, with 150 passengers on board, including a lap-held child, and five crew members.
One flight attendant and four passengers sustained serious injuries. While the aircraft was considerably damaged, all on board survived.
The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) attributes this successful ditching to: “(1) the decision making of the flight crew members and their crew resource management during the accident sequence; (2) the fortuitous use of an airplane that was equipped for an extended overwater flight, including the availability of the forward slide/rafts, even though it was not required to be so equipped; (3) the performance of the cabin crew members while expediting the evacuation of the airplane; and (4) the proximity of the emergency responders to the accident site and their immediate and appropriate response to the accident.” But – even with all these factors in its favor – this event could have ended in tragedy.
The back seat
Doreen Welsh was the rear cabin flight attendant on this miracle flight. She tells us why this accident had every reason to go wrong, and how self-preservation, improvisation and considerable good luck helped ensure everyone on board survived to tell this unbelievable tale: “We had 90 seconds from the impact [to evacuate]. It was so violent in the back that my body was in a slow-motion moment for a while. In your mind you’re going through all of your training, all of the procedures of what you need to do,” she recalls.
Carrying out a maneuver as complicated as a safe water landing required every ounce of concentration from the flight crew to be focused on flight procedures. Their communication to the cabin, therefore, was limited and very last-minute.
“The first thing we noticed was the silence from losing both engines. We didn’t know what happened until the captain said, ‘Brace for impact’,” Welsh says. “In the back of the aircraft there was a lot of damage. About 2.5ft behind my jump-seat was a hole that had ripped right through. That’s where all the water came in.”
As the NTSB report describes, the damage at the back was significant. “The FR65 vertical beam had punctured through the cabin floor in front of the direct-view jump-seat about 11in forward of the seat pan and 19in left of the lavatory wall. The passenger floor crossbeam web and lower flange in this area were bent in the aft direction. The left-side passenger floor support strut was sheared above the FR65 attachment point and was fractured below the floor crossbeam. The right-side passenger floor support strut was sheared close to the FR65 and crossbeam attachment points. The center passenger floor support strut was missing at the upper attachment angles on the floor crossbeam. The cargo floor structure was missing in this area. The two floor panels covering the aft galley area from FR66 to FR70 were pushed upward, the fasteners and fastener inserts in the panel were damaged, the fastener heads had pulled through the honeycomb flooring material, and the floor panels were broken. The upward deformation of the panel created a 2-3in gap around the perimeter of the panel, providing visibility directly into the subfloor cargo compartment.”
According to the report, the rear Door 2L was also “cracked” open, but it was unclear how.
As Welsh describes the situation in the cabin, there were greater impediments to evacuation in the back than just the water. The impact had dislodged equipment from the galley, including trolleys, coffee pots and trash cans. Welsh feels fortunate that one of the galley carts – the one directly behind her jump-seat – didn’t come loose. She believes her injuries could have been more severe, even deadly. Welsh considers this to be just another element of the good fortune that played a role in her survival during this incident.
But the two trolleys either side of her came loose from their fasteners and interfered with one of the doors at the back. With the water rising, Welsh had to improvise.
“I’m telling people to stand back and get out of the way, and trying to assess everything that I should do with the water rising. I wanted to assess whether I could get one raft out, but the water was too high, and so I had to direct the people to move forward,” Welsh says.
Passengers toward the rear of the aircraft had sought the nearest exit, which, in this case, was the wrong one.
“I had to fight quite a few of them to keep them from coming to the back. I had to grab people, shake people, scream commands. There were things I had to make up, which were not part of our training, just to get them to move,” Welsh says.
“One of the things that I started yelling – because it didn’t seem like they were moving fast enough – was that if people were able to climb over the seats then they should do that and clear the aisle for those who couldn’t climb. We needed them to move faster because the water was coming up rapidly,” she says.
Despite some passengers being turned around and others becoming confused, Welsh describes a remarkably orderly evacuation.
“There wasn’t any hostility. It was just that everybody knew they had to get out of there now,” she says. “The people where I was – at the back – saw the water coming. That gave them reason to move faster. There were some people in shock so I had to shake them to move.” In retrospect, Welsh adds, “It didn’t seem very quick as the water was rising, but it was. There were four window exits, so people were going through those, and that helped.”
The evacuation differed at the other end of the plane. “The people at the front took their coats with them,” Welsh tells us. “It was a whole different world at the front.”
Both forward doors were clear, although the NTSB report states that door 1R started to close, intruding on the doorway and “impinging on the slide/raft”.
One of the FAs at the front assigned a passenger to hold the door, so that others could pass. Both of the slides/rafts deployed – although the slide/raft on 1L had to be deployed manually, causing a 20-second delay.
A series of unfortunate events
The NTSB report reveals that the evacuation was not “by the book”. There was sufficient departure from procedure that – in another set of circumstances – the situation could have resulted in tragedy.
The NTSB also reveals that some passengers, who had left the aircraft, re-entered and then exited again. The map which marks these separate evacuations reveals that the individuals had first exited onto one of the wings and then re-entered to reach one of the two slides at the front of the airplane. That there was any time to exit, re-enter and exit again reveals just how orderly cabin conditions were in most of the aircraft.
The evacuation map also shows the success of Welsh’s strategy, encouraging passengers to climb over seats. A number of passengers at the very back made it all the way to the forward door slide/rafts.
Not only did the captain and his first officer carry out an almost impossible landing, they then waited in the cabin to ensure all passengers were evacuated safely. Noting that many had evacuated without life jackets, they collected life jackets from the seats to distribute among the passengers.
It seems impossible to believe, but in what might have been utter chaos and confusion, a fully loaded A320 was evacuated safely on the water with time to spare to wait for rescue boats.
The rescue boats also came quickly. The aircraft made impact on the Hudson River at 3:30pm (+43 seconds), and by 3:54pm (+43 seconds) the last rescue vessel ferried the last rescued passengers away from the site of the crash.
“By the time I got up there and got on the raft it wasn’t long until the ferry boats came for us. One of the things we would have had to do, if the wait was longer, was to cut ourselves free from the aircraft. But we didn’t have to do that because the rescue was so fast,” Welsh recalls.
The weather was fair, the captain was skilled, the crew was experienced, and many passengers were frequent flyers. Things went horribly wrong, but countless other factors, large and small, contributed to a happy ending.
“It was one of those miracles that everything worked out in the end,” Welsh says. “So many positive things happened that enabled everybody to get out of there.”