Jan 21st, 2019

Miracle on the Hudson: Lessons Learned 10 Years Later

Posted in Aviation News

We marked the tenth anniversary of “The Miracle on the Hudson”.  On January 15, 2009, Captain Sullenberger and crew landed a passenger airliner on the Hudson River after both engines failed.  I share two lessons from the event and a personal story.

On January 15, 2009, US Airways Flight 1549 took off from New York’s LaGuardia Airport.  Less than two minutes since becoming airborne after takeoff, the Airbus A 320 impacted a flock of Canadian Geese.  Both engines rolled back indicating a loss of power.  

When dual engine failures pilots are instructed to attempt to restart the engines (time and altitude permitting).  If that is is not possible, they look for a place to conduct an emergency landing.  

The options for emergency landing over New York City and nearby New Jersey are slim to none.  The crippled aircraft’’s best chance lie in performing a 180 degree turn and heading back to LaGuardia for a powerless landing.  Captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger determined that a return glide to LaGuardia was not possible.  As he scanned the ground below he saw only one patch of earth without buildings.  However, there was water, it was the Hudson River.

Sullenberger’s crew radio their intentions.  The controller in an attempt to be helpful offered to clear traffic for a return to LaGuardia.  No, we’ll take the Hudson was the calm reply.

The ditched landing was textbook.  What occurred next was even more astounding.  Boats began to converge on the floating plane similar to the scene of the British floating their trapped troops out of Dunkirk.  Rescue boats, fire boats, all kinds of vessels had the passengers floating away in a matter of minutes. 

The grateful passengers are still thankful for Sully these ten years later.  For video footage of a reunion see:    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IaKPVz8HwHk 

I draw two lessons from the incident.  One good and one ugly.  I start with the ugly

The Ugly

I have seen this more than I care to acknowledge.  Whenever a pilot “dings” (i.e. crashes or dents an airplane) the nay saying vultures and Monday Morning Quarterbacks come out en masse looking to pin it on the pilot.  This reaction is, in part, justified.  Many aircraft accident over the years have been accurately blamed on “pilot error’.  

After Sully’s display of calm under pressure, professionalism, and bravery the vultures came swooping in.  The second guessing began — especially the “You could have made it back to LaGuardia, why didn’t you” line.  Unbelievable!

Sullenberger had a matter of seconds to accomplish the three steps of an emergency situation

  1. Maintain aircraft control
  2. Analyze the situation and take appropriate action
  3. Land as soon as conditions permit.

Within seconds Sully had to determine if they could make it back to LaGuardia.  If he was wrong, there were only buildings in which to crash land.  He made the call to take the river.  Who can fault him for that?  Some tried.  After several months of investigation, his decision was shown to be the correct one.  For the story of that episode, see the movie, “Sully”.

The Good

“I love it when a plan comes together,” so said Hannibal on the 80’s drama, “The A Team”.  Sully Sullenberger had been teaching Human Factors and other aviation topics for years.  For several dramatic minutes on that fateful Thursday afternoon, he got a chance to put it all in action. It’s one thing to consult about it or teach it, it is quite another to live it out.

Sully Sullenberger did it that day, even doing a last chance inspection of all the seats to check for stragglers before he left the aircraft and boarded the life boats.  His actions are considered “textbook”.  It was a great picture of someone practicing what they preach.  

The Funny

Each year the United States Air Force Academy awards the Jabara Award to the Academy grad with the most memorable flight of the year.  Chesley Sullenberger is Air Force Academy Class of 1973.

A few hours after the Miracle on the Hudson, my friend John called.  John is Air Force Academy Class of 1971.  “I guess we know who’s going to win the Jabara Award this year”.  He was right, Chesley Sullenberger, Jabara Award winner for 2009.  Well done Sully!