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Pilot guides engine-less plane into frigid river

“Ilanded in the Hudson," Matt Kane e-mailed a co-worker impatiently waiting for him in Charlotte, N.C., on Thursday.

And so he had, along with 154 other people aboard US Airways Flight 1549. The plane struck a flock of birds just after takeoff from New York's LaGuardia Airport, apparently disabling the engines.

While stunned witnesses watched from high-rise buildings on both banks of the Hudson River, the Airbus A320 flew lower than many apartment terraces and windows in a carefully executed touchdown shortly after 3:30 p.m.

On board, pilot Chesley Sullenberger III, 57, unable to get back to La Guardia, had decided to avoid densely populated areas and try for the Hudson, and warned the 150 passengers to brace for a hard landing. Most had their heads down as the jetliner pancaked and then slammed into the water, nose slightly up, just five minutes after takeoff on what was to be a flight to Charlotte.

What might have been a New York City catastrophe was averted by a pilot's quick thinking and deft maneuvers, and by the nearness of rescue boats, a combination that witnesses and officials called miraculous. One person suffered two broken legs, a paramedic said, but there were no other reports of serious injuries.

"You've got to give it to the pilot," said passenger Jeff Kolodjay of Norwalk, Conn. "He made a hell of a landing."

The plane was submerged up to its windows in the river by the time rescuers arrived, including Coast Guard vessels and commuter ferries that happened to be nearby. Some passengers waded in water up to their knees, standing on the wing of the plane and waiting for help.

Fire officials said others were evaluated for hypothermia, bruises and other minor injuries. An infant was on board and appeared to be fine, Mayor Michael Bloomberg said.

The crash took place on a 20-degree day, one of the coldest of the season in New York. The Coast Guard said the water temperature was 36 degrees.

Dave Sanderson, who was flying home to Charlotte after a business trip, said the sound of an explosion was followed by passengers running up the aisle and people being shoved out of the way.

As the plane descended, passenger Vallie Collins tapped out a text message to her husband, Steve: "My plane is crashing." He was desperately trying to figure out whether she had been on the downed plane when the message arrived.

Kolodjay said people put their heads in their laps and prayed. He said the captain instructed them to "brace for impact because we're going down."

As water slowly filled the cabin, Sanderson said he and another passenger helped people out onto the wing. One woman had a 3-year-old child, he said, and safely tossed the toddler onto a raft before climbing on herself.

One commuter ferry, the Thomas Jefferson of the company NY Waterway, arrived within minutes of the crash, and some of its own riders grabbed life vests and lines of rope and tossed them to plane passengers in the water.

"They were cheering when we pulled up," ferry captain Vincent Lombardi. "We had to pull an elderly woman out of a raft in a sling. She was crying. … People were panicking. They said, 'Hurry up, hurry up.' "

Paramedics treated at least 78 patients, fire officials said. Coast Guard boats rescued 35 people who were immersed in the frigid water and ferried them to shore.

Two police scuba divers said they pulled another woman from a lifeboat "frightened out of her mind" and lethargic from hypothermia. Another woman fell off a rescue raft, and the divers said they swam over and put her on a Coast Guard boat.

The plane took off at 3:26 p.m. for a flight that would last only five minutes. It was less than a minute after takeoff when the pilot reported a "double bird strike" and said he needed to return to LaGuardia, said Doug Church, a spokesman for the National Air Traffic Controllers Association. He said the pilot apparently meant that birds had hit both of the plane's jet engines.

The controller told the pilot to divert to an airport in nearby Teterboro, N.J., but it was not clear why the pilot did not land there.

Church said there was no mayday call from the plane's transponder. The plane splashed into the water off roughly 48th Street in midtown Manhattan, one of the busiest and most closely watched stretches of the river.

Bank of America and Wells Fargo said they had employees on the plane. Charlotte is a major banking center.

The plane sank slowly as it drifted downriver. Gradually, the fuselage went under until about half of the tail fin and rudder was above water. A Fire Department boat tugged the plane to the southern tip of Manhattan and docked it there.

It was equipped with a device unique to Airbus planes that increased the likelihood it would stay on top of the water. The device, called a "ditching switch," effectively seals the plane by closing valves and ventilation ports, an Airbus spokeswoman said.

The Hudson crash took place almost exactly 27 years after an Air Florida plane bound for Tampa crashed into the Potomac River just after takeoff from Washington National Airport, killing 78 people. Five people on that flight survived.

fast facts

Birds hit at least 6 jets in 2008

Sept. 21: Multiple wood storks hit a Boeing 767 climbing out of Orlando International Airport, damaging an engine and the nose of the jet. The crew declared an emergency and returned to land 12 minutes later.

Sept. 11: Rock pigeons were sucked into an MD-88's engine as the jet was climbing out of Atlanta International Airport. The engine was destroyed. Aircraft made an emergency landing.

July 24: Between two and 10 geese struck a Learjet 60 taking off from Morristown, N.J., municipal airport, damaging the No. 2 engine and wing. The pilot aborted the takeoff. Plane damage was $3-million.

June 20: A red-tailed hawk was sucked into the engine of a Boeing 747-400 taking off from Chicago's O'Hare, damaging engine blades. The plane climbed to dump $100,000 worth of fuel, then returned for a landing. Although the hawk struck only one engine, the plane's other engine suffered severe vibrations.

March 10: An Airbus 318 jet ran into a flock of Canada geese a mile from Denver International Airport, causing smoke in the cockpit and damage to its landing gear, engines and nose. The plane landed safely but was moved by a tug to its gate.

Jan. 28: A short-eared owl was sucked into the engine of a Boeing 747 climbing out of the Louisville, Ky., airport, damaging fan blades inside the engine. The flight crew reported minor noise and vibration, which later subsided. The engine and its housing were later repaired.

Source: U.S. Agriculture Department

Pilot guides engine-less plane into frigid river 01/15/09 [Last modified: Friday, January 16, 2009 6:59am]
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