What Went Right: Revisiting Captain "Sully" Sullenberger's Miracle on the Hudson (2024)

Miraculous. That's the descriptor that popped up in the days after the successful landing of US Air Flight 1549 in the Hudson River on January 15, 2009. But then, as now, aviation experts saw the events of the "Miracle on the Hudson" a little differently. What happened to Captain Chesley Sullenberger III and his crew was a piece of tremendous bad luck, mitigated by a few turns of equally stunning good fortune and a sequence of smart decisions by the captain and his crew.

Here's a pilot's-eye view of what went right during the emergency, the landing, and the rescue that saw all 150 passengers rescued safely from the plane. (This piece was originally published the week of the landing and has been updated.)

The Timing of the Bird Strike

As the world found out fairly soon after the incident, a bird strike took out the Airbus A-320's engines. Bird strikes—a bird or birds being sucked into the engine's turbine—are relatively common, according to Fred George, a senior editor at Business and Commercial Aviation and a former Navy pilot who has clocked hours on an Airbus A-320. Most of those bird strikes cause no damage to the plane.

"Sully's not only a good pilot, he's a good guy. He really earned that fourth stripe."

A bird strike that is serious enough to damage an engine is exceedingly rare, but doesn't result in a full-on emergency. Usually the plane can simply turn around and make a largely routine landing on one engine. A double bird strike bad enough to disable both engines is a stroke of massive bad luck.

But it could have been much worse for Captain Sullenberger. If the bird strike had happened seconds earlier, right after takeoff, it would have likely proved disastrous. The plane probably would have plunged into the rough and frigid water of the Long Island Sound at a very high speed. Those extra seconds proved crucial. "Once he got the thing up to 3,000 feet, now he's got a little wiggle room in terms of forming a plan of action," George says.

Sully's Decision

When both engines failed, Captain Sullenberger found himself in the kind of situation that doesn't arise even on a pilot simulator. At that point, "he found himself in the position of being an experimental test pilot," says George. So Sullenberger did what all good aviators do (and what glider pilots know best): He kept flying the plane.

"An airplane doesn't quit flying when the engines quit as long as the wings maintain their structural integrity," explains retired pilot John Wiley, a 27-year veteran of US Air. During a normal landing, the pilot pulls the engines back to idle. (The fly-by-wire avionics in the Airbus A-320 feature a warning system that says "Retard" in an English accent, to remind the pilot to cut the throttle when the plane reaches an altitude of 50 feet.) Sullenberger's challenge was to find the familiar in the midst of a dire emergency. "You take the picture you've got and you turn it into one that you recognize," says Wiley. "You visualize the river like it's just another runway."

Hudson River Geography

The co*ckpit crew had three choices: return to LaGuardia, push on toward Teterboro Airport in New Jersey, or land in the Hudson. The plane was going too fast to return to LaGuardia, and would have likely overshot the runway without the engines working in reverse to slow the plane. Getting the plane to Teterboro would have been risky, since the airport's short runways aren't designed for a large commercial jet. This left option number three, experts believe, as the safest choice.

"An airplane doesn't quit flying when the engines quit."

If you have to put a jet down, the Hudson River is close to an ideal venue. It's wide, and the water is relatively calm. The plane was also filled with jet fuel, which is lighter (6.7 pounds per gal versus 8 pounds per gal) and more buoyant than water, which helped it stay afloat long enough to evacuate.

An Able Copilot

What Went Right: Revisiting Captain "Sully" Sullenberger's Miracle on the Hudson (3)

The Miracle on the Hudson jet is towed across the tarmac at Charlotte Douglas Airport as it completes the last leg of its journey from New Jersey to the Carolinas Aviation Museum June 10, 2011, in Charlotte, North Carolina.

While much credit has rightfully gone to Sullenberger, his copilot Jeffrey Skiles deserves to be commended as well. In an emergency, the US Air procedures call for the copilot to take the controls while the captain makes the decisions, free from the mechanical burden of flying the plane—this is called Pilot Monitoring, or PM, in aviation parlance. It's not clear whether Sullenberger or Skiles actually landed the plane, but the man in the PM seat would have been plenty busy, calling out speed and altitude and, if there was time, running through the plane's ditching checklist and possibly pushing the ditch button found on the Airbus A-320 which seals some of the ports on the plane's belly.

Fluid Communications

Of the three mandates in the aviator's handbook—aviate, navigate, communicate—the last may have been most important in this emergency. Sullenberger and the crew shared information with exceptional efficiency.

"He communicated his intentions very calmly to the air traffic controllers and to his onboard team," John Wiley says. This enabled first responders to arrive on the scene as quickly as possible, and kept passengers from panicking as they were rescued. "It allowed the passengers to think they were going to get out of this alive," he says.

Don't underestimate the actions of the flight crew. While on an uneventful flight, most of their time is spent pouring coffee, updating the flight log, and distributing headsets, flight attendants are highly trained and are required to practice in-water simulations of this kind of an evacuation. On this day, the flight crew kept a plane full of passengers calm, made them don their life jackets, and helped the women and children off first. Thanks to this, they avoided the onboard panic and chaos that could have made a bad situation much worse. Furthermore, "they had the presence of mind not to open the back door, which would have flooded the aircraft," says Wiley, who is a contributing editor at Business and Commercial Aviation.

Big-City Response

What Went Right: Revisiting Captain "Sully" Sullenberger's Miracle on the Hudson (5)

If the Hudson was the best, if improbable, place for an emergency landing, Sullenberger couldn't have picked a better spot on the river to land. The location, near New York City's bustling Midtown, is also where several ferry lines cross. Because of this, boats were on the scene in a matter of minutes, bearing crews who have been trained to deal with rescuing panicked civilians. A police helicopter with trained divers also arrived in a few minutes, the pilot having the presence of mind to not get too close to the scene, which might have produced a prop wash that could have blown passengers into the icy river.

In a deed symbolic of his grace under pressure, Sullenberger's last act was to calmly walk up and down the aisles of the plane not once, but twice, to make sure that everyone was evacuated. "Sully's not only a good pilot, he's a good guy," says Wiley, who has worked with the captain. "He really earned his fourth stripe."

What Went Right: Revisiting Captain "Sully" Sullenberger's Miracle on the Hudson (2024)
Top Articles
Latest Posts
Article information

Author: Greg O'Connell

Last Updated:

Views: 5799

Rating: 4.1 / 5 (62 voted)

Reviews: 93% of readers found this page helpful

Author information

Name: Greg O'Connell

Birthday: 1992-01-10

Address: Suite 517 2436 Jefferey Pass, Shanitaside, UT 27519

Phone: +2614651609714

Job: Education Developer

Hobby: Cooking, Gambling, Pottery, Shooting, Baseball, Singing, Snowboarding

Introduction: My name is Greg O'Connell, I am a delightful, colorful, talented, kind, lively, modern, tender person who loves writing and wants to share my knowledge and understanding with you.