[sound of individual quietly sobbing to himself]
October 30, 2018 1:07 PM   Subscribe

On January 15, 2009 US Airways flight 1549 departed LaGuardia airport on its way to Charlotte. Roughly three minutes into the flight they struck a flock of large winged rats Canada geese, which caused a loss of thrust from both engines. This was uncharted territory. In short, this crew went from routine to having a very bad day in just a few seconds. This is where I try to imagine myself in that situation.
posted by sciatrix (35 comments total) 45 users marked this as a favorite
 
When the incident was reenacted in the simulator, it was determined that they might have made it to LaGuardia or Teterboro if they had done it immediately after hitting the birds. Even then the test pilots only had a 50% success rate. That means best case there was a 50% chance it would have ended catastrophically.

Whoa.

That was a very interesting read. I have to say, it has always seemed like magic to me that an aircraft can fly with only one engine. Having both out, and having the outcome they did, just wow.
posted by 4ster at 1:39 PM on October 30, 2018 [4 favorites]


Here's the voice cockpit recording if you would like to listen (including the pilot of another plane telling air traffic control, after contact is lost, "I think he said they were going in the Hudson"). I did watch the movie ("Sully"), and it's fine outside of what felt to be some manufactured conflict between Sully and the NTSB investigators; it's no great drama but it is pretty darn faithful to all the transcripts of what happened that day. The "plot", such as it is, hinges on introducing the 35 second delay in response for the pilots on the simulators (and the movie made it seem that the simulators were 100% successful without that delay).
posted by nubs at 1:42 PM on October 30, 2018 [2 favorites]


Literally seconds before piloting a ballistic lump of aluminium into a river:
15:30:21 Capt: got any ideas?
15:30:23 F/O: actually not.
#nervesoftitanium
posted by aihal at 1:42 PM on October 30, 2018 [23 favorites]


That was probably the first bit of major breaking news I learned about on Twitter, including some links to some phone camera photos on TwitPic (remember that) before Twitter had pictures built in. It was also the first time I realized Twitter was for more than posting pictures of your breakfast.

A pilot friend of mine thinks a) Sully performed exceptionally and b) he was really, really lucky to be at the right place at the right time when his engines failed.
posted by bondcliff at 1:51 PM on October 30, 2018 [4 favorites]


By coincidence, Capt. Sullenberger just published an op-ed in the Washington Post,
"We saved 155 lives on the Hudson. Now let’s vote for leaders who’ll protect us all."
posted by PhineasGage at 1:53 PM on October 30, 2018 [39 favorites]


god we watched it from the office windows and naturally had the usual nyc debate of "real or movie filming?"
posted by poffin boffin at 1:53 PM on October 30, 2018 [29 favorites]


The thing about the LaGuardia or Teterboro diversions is that a) the timing was so tight that there was no way for the pilots in the moment to know if they had just barely enough glide path to make the airport and clear all potential obstacles or just barely *not* enough, and b) if it had gone bad it would be more catastrophic than even a bad water ditch, adding potential victims on the ground. So the Hudson was absolutely the right choice, and would have been even if it hadn't been perfect. A bad water ditch still would have had more chance of survivors than a hard target collision.
posted by tavella at 2:09 PM on October 30, 2018 [14 favorites]


Not that I would have blamed pilots that opted to try for the airport and failed either, it was basically an option of which bad choice.
posted by tavella at 2:17 PM on October 30, 2018


An interview with the air traffic controller.
posted by thomas j wise at 2:26 PM on October 30, 2018


A reminder of the Sully Cocktail: 2 shots of Grey Goose and a splash of water.
posted by chavenet at 2:35 PM on October 30, 2018 [49 favorites]


god we watched it from the office windows and naturally had the usual nyc debate of "real or movie filming?"

Yet another plus for living (ironically) in a flyover city. We never have those debates. No one films here. If a plane lands in the reservoir, you should def call 911.
posted by Thorzdad at 2:53 PM on October 30, 2018 [15 favorites]


I've told the story of this before, but only knew it vaguely. Now I can give an exact transcript. Wikipedia has an article describing the setup:

"United Airlines flight 232, aka "UA232" (United 232 Heavy), was a scheduled flight operated by United Airlines. On July 19, 1989, its Douglas DC-10-10 (Registration N1819U) suffered an uncontained failure of its number 2 engine in the tail, which destroyed all three of the aircraft's hydraulic systems. With no controls working except the throttles for the two remaining engines, it crashlanded on the runway at Sioux City, Iowa killing 110 of its 285 passengers and one of the 11 crew members."

OK. So, serious stuff. That didn't mean the pilot, Captain Alfred C. Haynes, lost his humor, though. Here's the exchange between Haynes and the tower I've only been quasi-quoting for years:

Sioux City Approach: United Two Thirty-Two Heavy, the wind's currently three six zero at one one; three sixty at eleven. You're cleared to land on any runway.

Captain: [laughter] Roger. [laughter] You want to be particular and make it a runway, huh?

(full transcript here, in Acrobat format)

*^*^*

Interesting tidbit gleaned from the Wikipedia article:

"The flight crew discovered that the only way to control the plane was by adjusting the thrust on the two remaining wing-mounted engines. Dennis E. Fitch, a DC-10 instructor who was deadheading as a passenger on the plane and was not part of the flight crew, offered his assistance. The task of flying the plane (using the throttles) was assigned to him... In subsequent reconstructions of the circumstances of the accident in flight simulators, no pilot, regardless of seniority, has succeeded in reproducing Fitch's achievement of maneuvering the aircraft as far as the runway. Generally, others lose control while the aircraft is still in mid air."

Wow.
posted by aurelian at 2:55 PM on October 30, 2018 [36 favorites]


Literally seconds before piloting a ballistic lump of aluminium into a river:
15:30:21 Capt: got any ideas?
15:30:23 F/O: actually not.



I would have said, "notreally"
posted by notreally at 3:19 PM on October 30, 2018 [12 favorites]


I was lucky enough to hear Captain Al Haynes speak about the Sioux City landing once. He was the dinner speaker during a conference, and it was notable how at the beginning of his speech you could hear people's forks and knives on their plates as they ate. Less than five minutes in, the room was dead silent as everybody focused on him and the cockpit recordings. By the end of his talk, many of us were weeping.

If you get a chance to hear him, take it.
posted by Lexica at 3:44 PM on October 30, 2018 [16 favorites]


I would have done it in July.
posted by Awkward Philip at 4:03 PM on October 30, 2018 [3 favorites]


This story is so great. I am definitely in the mood for stories about skilled people managing difficult situations and saving lives. Thanks for sharing, sciatrix.
posted by eirias at 4:12 PM on October 30, 2018 [12 favorites]


That article is riveting!
posted by medusa at 4:52 PM on October 30, 2018 [1 favorite]


Great article. I've watched the episode of Air Crash Investigations/Mayday heaps of times and it's fascinating how they can be so succinct "unable". I really felt for the poor air traffic control guy.

Eirias, I highly recommend ACI/ Mayday for stories about skilled people managing difficult situations. Google "Gimli Glider", there are probably articles as well as the show, those pilots did a remarkable job.
posted by kitten magic at 6:09 PM on October 30, 2018 [4 favorites]


My uncle was a senior USAir pilot based out of the East Coast and on a trip when this all happened. I had a heartstopping moment trying to figure out the name of the captain before I confirmed it wasn't him.

USAir at the time of this crash was in a bad place and had been for years. Pilots had lost their pensions in the the bankruptcies and the acquisition by America West, so morale was low. My uncle had been with US Air since 1986, when they'd acquired PSA, and he was all in with them and not particularly happy about the choice he'd made. There were some stupid shenanigans with the pilots' labor union and America West pilots' seniority as part of the merger. As the article alludes to, US Air had very uh, senior flight crews so there were also a number of veteran pilots who had expected to be forceably retired under FAA rules and then weren't. It was just a mess.

All in all, it was a weird time to be a pilot at USAir and I cannot help but think of that every time I think of this crash. No matter how shitty a year the guy was having, he piloted a plane into the Hudson and everyone survived. Goddamn.
posted by librarylis at 7:33 PM on October 30, 2018 [9 favorites]


no pilot, regardless of seniority, has succeeded in reproducing Fitch's achievement of maneuvering the aircraft as far as the runway. Generally, others lose control while the aircraft is still in mid air."

I knew this story because Errol Morris did an excellent interview with Denny Fitch and mini-doc.
posted by atoxyl at 8:59 PM on October 30, 2018 [4 favorites]


Thanks, atoxyl, that film's great.
posted by aurelian at 11:48 PM on October 30, 2018


And I am always amazed that on a busy waterway like the Hudson, there happened to be no obstructions.
posted by TWinbrook8 at 1:14 AM on October 31, 2018


Lexica: "I was lucky enough to hear Captain Al Haynes speak about the Sioux City landing once. He was the dinner speaker during a conference, and it was notable how at the beginning of his speech you could hear people's forks and knives on their plates as they ate. Less than five minutes in, the room was dead silent as everybody focused on him and the cockpit recordings. By the end of his talk, many of us were weeping.

If you get a chance to hear him, take it.
"

Capt Al Haynes speaking about United 232
posted by chavenet at 1:57 AM on October 31, 2018 [7 favorites]


Sioux City was all I could think about reading this too. Underappreciated in that story is the amazing humbleness shown in the moment by Haynes to hand flight control over to Fitch, who had no reason to be there at all but as the fleet instructor was obviously the best qualified pilot (note that nearly the first thing Sully says is "my aircraft" -- also, by the way, the correct move as he was the best pilot available).

My recollection is that in Sioux City, Fitch ended up using an aerodynamic phenomenon that was undesigned and not modeled in the simulators, explaining why nobody could replicate it (because my sense is that basically every qualified DC-10 pilot in the world gave it a shot). Presumably he had developed a feel for it in his previous gazillion hours in a DC-10 but who knows, I'd also believe that a world-class pilot just figured it out on the spot.

Honestly the most surprising thing here is that LaGuardia didn't offer them the Hudson sooner -- it seemed like they maybe didn't have enough info to know quite how bad things were.

I used to teach a class where we talked about a bunch of flight accidents and one of the amazing common elements is that in basically every case, ATC provides Plan A and the pilot responds with "too many people on the ground nearby, talk to me about an open field." Most of them don't even want to glide over a neighborhood if there's the remotest chance of a casualty on land. It's like watching a real time Trolley Problem.
posted by range at 5:20 AM on October 31, 2018 [12 favorites]


FYI: Engine test bird strike: Goose
posted by mikelieman at 6:05 AM on October 31, 2018 [1 favorite]


Honestly the most surprising thing here is that LaGuardia didn't offer them the Hudson sooner -- it seemed like they maybe didn't have enough info to know quite how bad things were.

In retrospect, the Hudson seems like Manhattan's version of a clear highway, and (again, in retrospect) it seems like one of the better, well, not Plan Bs but maybe Plan Cs.

i guess that ATC, like the pilots, had little training in water landings, and in the few minutes they had, they were leaning very, very hard on training. In an airport landing you have fire trucks at the scene and a chance of saving people. In a water landing, the ATC has said he assumed that many people died, and it took a long time for him to recover even after learning that everyone lived.
posted by zippy at 7:11 AM on October 31, 2018


The limited experience with landing big jets in water previous to this had not been good, so understandable.
posted by tavella at 8:51 AM on October 31, 2018 [1 favorite]


Speaking of grace under pressure, here's a post from last month of the radio conversation between ATC, a young student pilot who lost part of her landing gear on takeoff, and the flight instructors who helped her bring her aircraft in for a safe landing.
posted by Gelatin at 8:54 AM on October 31, 2018 [4 favorites]


Honestly the most surprising thing here is that LaGuardia didn't offer them the Hudson sooner -- it seemed like they maybe didn't have enough info to know quite how bad things were.

I think - without having a lot of specialist knowledge to back this up - that there were a few things in play that morning:

(a) no one had ever dealt with this scenario before - a plane losing both engines shortly after takeoff;
(b) ditching into water not being a general part of training or scenarios
(c) the ATC (interview with him is linked above) saying that his endgame focus was on putting the aircraft on the ground on a runway and that he felt that a water landing would be catastrophic, so he didn't want to consider it as an option
posted by nubs at 8:55 AM on October 31, 2018


Yeah, I don't know that it's really up to ATC to offer a river to a pilot. That's 100% on the pilot. It's not ATC's river to offer.

I think at some point in the ATC for United 232 they did mention that there was a 4-lane highway near the airport that might be an option but I think at that point they didn't even know if they could make it back to an airport.
posted by bondcliff at 9:18 AM on October 31, 2018 [1 favorite]


I guess that ATC, like the pilots, had little training in water landings, and in the few minutes they had, they were leaning very, very hard on training.

Yeah, and in the overwhelming majority of incidents, "go to the nearest airport" is the correct call. AFAICT emergency procedures take place almost entirely in three situations: takeoff, landing, and flying at altitude --- the firt two because they're complicated maneuvers in crowded space, and the third because even though nothing interesting is likely to happen in any given minute of altitude flying, it's also where planes spend most of their flight time. An emergency during takeoff or landing is already at an airport, and an emergency at altitude can glide its way to an airport in many circumstances (and will be obviously unable to when it's not, and then usually in an unpopulated area where collateral damage is less of a concern). An emergency during ascent is rare enough that ATC, on a moment's notice, was probably not jumping to "they can't get to an airport; where else could we drop them?".
posted by jackbishop at 9:23 AM on October 31, 2018


Oh for sure ATC seems to have made the best recommendations they could based on the evidence at hand; not even the crew knew how hosed they were until late in the process. The leaning-on-training aspect is probably most evident when ATC offers a runway 7 miles away -- I think the article at this point says something like "might as well be on the moon." That's got to be an artifact of running down a checklist and list of option runways in the neighborhood; I'm sure that list isn't automatically triaged in real-time by potential glide distance and assumes, like the other checklists, a failure at altitude, not right after takeoff.

In retrospect one of the clearest signs that Sully was a super-experienced pilot is that he jumped halfway down the checklist and started the APU because he knew, or intuited, that he didn't have that kind of time to waste. Also, I deleted this in my earlier comment but probably should have left it: the instant he indicates he's headed for the water ATC is all over it and is attempting to direct resources towards (and hopefully ferries away from) the spot.
posted by range at 9:34 AM on October 31, 2018 [7 favorites]


the instant he indicates he's headed for the water ATC is all over it and is attempting to direct resources towards (and hopefully ferries away from) the spot.
posted by range at 11:34 AM on October 31 [+] [!]


Definitely critical in any emergency situation like this is that once someone makes a clear decision, you follow through on it with everything you've got. Listening to the Al Haynes speech now.
posted by OnTheLastCastle at 9:36 AM on October 31, 2018 [3 favorites]


I’m watching the Capt. Haynes presentation that chavenet linked, and when Haynes is talking about the factors of the situation that were in their favor for surviving the crash, he said, just before the 12-minute mark:

“Another piece of luck is where we were. We could have been halfway to Honolulu, or we could have been over the Rockies, or we could have just taken off from, say, LaGuar—uh, New York, it’s Kennedy now, isn’t it? Kennedy airport, and right over Manhattan.”
posted by Autumnheart at 7:34 PM on October 31, 2018 [2 favorites]


Not to engage in magical thinking, but there might be a level of sensory attunement to what the aircraft is doing, down to neurochemical activation, that just isn't achievable in even a full motion simulator, and when your life (and many others) isn't on the line. Coupled with the kind of experience an instructor has, of course.
posted by snuffleupagus at 6:20 PM on November 1, 2018


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