NTSB ‘Miracle on the Hudson’ findings and recs released

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The National Transportation Safety Board released more than 30 recommendations to improve air safety after a 16-month investigation into US Airways Flight 1549, which ditched in the Hudson River last year, were released to the public.

Shortly after taking off from New York’s La Guardia Airport in January 2009, the Airbus A320 carrying 155 people lost power to both engines when large Canada geese flew into them.

After less than five minutes in the air, Capt. Chesley Sullenberger and First Officer Jeffrey Skiles made the decision to land in the 41-degree water of the Hudson River rather than try to land at Teterboro Airport across the river in New Jersey or back at LaGuardia. Everyone survived, with only five injured.

In issuing the recommendations to federal and international agencies, the NTSB, which oversaw the report, said that Sullenberger acted effectively in a crash he could not have avoided.

“Pilots like to think they’re pretty good, and I don’t think I could have done any better under the circumstances,” said Robert L. Sumwalt, a board member and former US Airways pilot.

A recording was played at the meeting of Sullenberger calmly and chillingly tell Air Traffic Control, “We’re going to be in the Hudson.”

NTSB Chairwoman Deborah Hersman said that despite Sullenberger’s brave actions, a fortuitous set of conditions allowed for such a landing:

“If visibility had been poor; if the flight had simply met, rather than exceeded safety equipment standards; if the incident took place over open water, where rescue vessels were not on hand; if even a single element had changed, the ditching could have ended not as a miracle but as a tragedy,” she said.

“The heroism of the flight crew was a necessary but not sufficient condition of the incident’s successful outcome.”

Findings and Recommendations

The plane was classified as “extended overwater”-equipped, meaning it had life vests and rafts, which the passengers used to keep out of the frigid river. Flights are only required to have this gear if they are scheduled to travel 50 miles beyond the closest shoreline. The plane was heading for Charlotte, N.C., a flight path that does not require such safety precautions.

Without the extra safety measures, Hersman said, there likely would have been more casualties due to the dangerously cold temperature of the Hudson River.

As a result, NTSB has recommended to the Federal Aviation Administration that all flights now contain enough life-saving equipment for every passenger on board, no matter how far a flight is, or what terrain it flies over.

NTSB also found that a vertical beam, which runs underneath the rear cabin in four different Airbus series planes, can become dislodged and intrude into the cabin upon a gear-up landing or ditching, which was the case in this flight.

The aft flight attendant, who was one of five injured in the crash, was struck in the shin by the beam.

Investigators determined that LaGuardia took the proper precautions in dealing with birds near the airport because it had a wildlife hazard assessment as well as a wildlife hazard management plan in place before the incident.

Airports are responsible for physically removing or scaring off wildlife from inside their perimeter fences.

The Canada geese hit the engines at approximately 2,800 feet in the air, well out of the airport’s range of responsibility, and a statistical unlikelihood considering 94 percent of engine ingestions occur at 150 feet above the ground or lower.

NTSB is recommending to the FAA that all Class 139 airports be required to perform wildlife hazard assessments, regardless of previous incidents. Roughly half of these airports have not had a wildlife hazard assessment of wildlife hazard management plan.

An unlikely accident

How unlikely was it for US Airways Flight 1549 to hit the Canada geese?

  • 94 percent of bird strikes occur at 150 feet above ground or less—this one occurred at 2,800 feet.
  • The second-lowest number of bird strikes happens in the month of January.
  • It is 30 times more likely that a plane will incur damage to a single engine than to two engines.
  • The plane hit migratory geese, which constitute 21 percent of the geese population, as compared to residential geese, which make up 79 percent of the population. Hitting residential geese in a plane is much more common.