Understanding Air Safety in the Jet Age/Wildlife Encounters/Bird Strikes/Cactus 1549

On January 15, 2009, US Airways Flight 1549, an Airbus A320 on a flight from New York City's LaGuardia Airport to Charlotte, North Carolina, struck a flock of birds shortly after take-off, losing all engine power. Unable to reach any airport for an emergency landing, pilots Chesley Sullenberger and Jeffrey Skiles glided the plane to a ditching in the Hudson River off Midtown Manhattan.[1] All 155 people on board were rescued by nearby boats, with a few serious injuries.

A partially submerged Airbus A320 with front emergency slides deployed and people standing on its wings

This water landing of a powerless jetliner became known as the "Miracle on the Hudson",[2] and a National Transportation Safety Board official described it as "the most successful ditching in aviation history".[3] The Board rejected the notion that the pilot could have avoided ditching by returning to LaGuardia or diverting to nearby Teterboro Airport.

The pilots and flight attendants were awarded the Master's Medal of the Guild of Air Pilots and Air Navigators in recognition of their "heroic and unique aviation achievement".[4]


N106US, the aircraft involved in the accident, at LaGuardia eight years earlier, while operating for US Airways Shuttle.

On January 15, 2009, US Airways Flight 1549[note 1] with call sign 'Cactus 1549' was scheduled to fly from New York City's LaGuardia Airport (LGA) to Charlotte Douglas (CLT), with direct onward service to Seattle–Tacoma International Airport. The aircraft was an Airbus A320-214 powered by two GE Aviation/Snecma-designed CFM56-5B4/P turbofan engines.[5][note 2]

The captain and pilot in command was 57-year-old Chesley B. Sullenberger, a former fighter pilot who had been an airline pilot since leaving the United States Air Force in 1980. At the time, he had logged 19,663 total flight hours, including 4,765 in an A320; he was also a glider pilot and expert on aviation safety.[9][10] First officer Jeffrey Skiles, 49,[9][11] had accrued 20,727 career flight hours with 37 in an A320,[12]:8–9 but this was his first A320 assignment as pilot flying.[13] There were 150 passengers and three flight attendants on board.[14][15]


Takeoff and bird strikeEdit

The flight was cleared for takeoff to the northeast from LaGuardia's Runway 4 at 3:24:56 pm Eastern Standard Time (20:24:56 UTC). With Skiles in control, the crew made its first report after becoming airborne at 3:25:51 as being at 700 feet (210 m) and climbing.[16]

The weather at 2:51 p.m. was 10 miles (16 km) visibility with broken clouds at 3,700 feet (1,100 m), wind Template:Convert/knots from 290°; an hour later it was few clouds at 4,200 feet (1,300 m), wind Template:Convert/knots from 310°.[12]:24 At 3:26:37 Sullenberger remarked to Skiles: "What a view of the Hudson today."[17]

The Hudson River from above the Bronx, with Manhattan in the diagonal center and New Jersey in the distance. The George Washington Bridge is at right, Central Park Reservoir at upper left, and Teterboro Airport at the right center within the elbow of the Overpeck Creek.
Flight path flown (red). Alternative trajectories to Teterboro (dark blue) and back toward La Guardia (magenta) were simulated for the investigation.

At 3:27:11 during climbout, the plane struck a flock of Canada geese at an altitude of 2,818 feet (859 m) about Template:Convert/miles north-northwest of LaGuardia. The pilots' view was filled with the large birds;[18] passengers and crew heard very loud bangs and saw flames from the engines, followed by silence and an odor of fuel.[19][20]

Realizing that both engines had shut down, Sullenberger took control while Skiles worked the checklist for engine restart.[note 3][12] The aircraft slowed but continued to climb for a further 19 seconds, reaching about 3,060 feet (930 m) at an airspeed of about 185 knots (Template:Convert/km/h mph), then began a glide descent, accelerating to 210 knots (Template:Convert/km/h mph) at 3:28:10 as it descended through 1,650 feet (500 m).

At 3:27:33, Sullenberger radioed a mayday call to New York Terminal Radar Approach Control (TRACON):[22][23] "... this is Cactus 1539 [sicTemplate:Sndcorrect call sign was Cactus 1549], hit birds. We've lost thrust on both engines. We're turning back towards LaGuardia".[17] Air traffic controller Patrick Harten[24] told LaGuardia's tower to hold all departures, and directed Sullenberger back to Runway 31. Sullenberger responded, "Unable".[23]

Sullenberger asked controllers for landing options in New Jersey, mentioning Teterboro Airport.[23][25][26] Permission was given for Teterboro's Runway 1,[26] Sullenberger initially responded "Yes", but then: "We can't do it  ... We're gonna be in the Hudson".[25] The aircraft passed less than 900 feet (270 m) above the George Washington Bridge. Sullenberger commanded over the cabin address system, "Brace for impact",[27] and the flight attendants relayed the command to passengers.[28] Meanwhile, air traffic controllers asked the Coast Guard to caution vessels in the Hudson and ask them to prepare to assist with rescue.[29]

Ditching and evacuationEdit

Coast Guard video of the water landing, and rescue

About ninety seconds later, at 3:31 pm, the plane made an unpowered ditching, descending southwards at about 125 knots (140 mph; 230 km/h) into the middle of the North River section of the Hudson tidal estuary, at 40°46′10″N 74°00′16″W / 40.769444°N 74.004444°W / 40.769444; -74.004444[30] on the New York side of the state line, roughly opposite West 50th Street (near the Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum) in Manhattan and Port Imperial in Weehawken, New Jersey. Flight attendants compared the ditching to a "hard landing" with "one impact, no bounce, then a gradual deceleration."[25] The ebb tide then began to take the plane southward.[31]

Sullenberger opened the cockpit door and gave the order to evacuate. The crew began evacuating the passengers through the four overwing window exits and into an inflatable slide/raft deployed from the front right passenger door (the front left slide failed to operate, so the manual inflation handle was pulled). The evacuation was made more difficult by the fact that someone opened the rear left door, allowing more water to enter the plane; whether this was a flight attendant[32] or a passenger is disputed.[12]:41[33][34][35] Water was also entering through a hole in the fuselage and through cargo doors that had come open,[36] so as the water rose the attendant urged passengers to move forward by climbing over seats.[note 4] One passenger was in a wheelchair.[38] Finally, Sullenberger walked the cabin twice to confirm it was empty.[39][40]

The air and water temperatures were about −7 °C (19 °F) and 5 °C (41 °F), respectively.[12]:24 Some evacuees waited for rescue knee-deep in water on the partially submerged slides, some wearing life vests. Others stood on the wings or, fearing an explosion, swam away from the plane.[32] One passenger, after helping with the evacuation, found the wing so crowded that he jumped into the river and swam to a boat.[25][41][42]


Sullenberger had ditched near boats, which facilitated rescue.[16][39] Two NY Waterway ferries arrived within minutes[43] and began taking people aboard using a Jason's cradle;[27] numerous other boats, including from the US Coast Guard, were quickly on scene as well.[citation needed] Sullenberger advised the ferry crews to rescue those on the wings first, as they were in more jeopardy than those on the slides, which detached to become life rafts.[27] The last person was taken from the plane at 3:55 pm.[44]

About 140 New York City firefighters responded to nearby docks,[45][46] as did police, helicopters, and various vessels and divers.[45] Other agencies provided medical help on the Weehawken side of the river, where most passengers were taken.[47]

Boats surround the tail of the sunken plane, visible just above the water line.


The partially submerged aircraft tied up alongside Battery Park City

Among the people on board there were 95 minor injuries and 5 serious,[note 5][12]:6 including a deep laceration in flight attendant Doreen Welsh's leg.[25][49] Seventy-eight people were treated, mostly for minor injuries[50] and hypothermia;[51] twenty-four passengers and two rescuers were treated at hospitals,[52] with two passengers kept overnight. One passenger now wears glasses because of eye damage from jet fuel.[41] No pets were being carried on the flight.[53]

Each passenger later received a letter of apology, $5,000 in compensation for lost baggage (and $5,000 more if they could demonstrate larger losses), and refund of the ticket price.[54] In May 2009, they received any belongings that had been recovered. In addition, they reported offers of $10,000 each in return for agreeing not to sue US Airways.[55]

Many passengers and rescuers later experienced post-traumatic stress symptoms such as sleeplessness, flashbacks, and panic attacks; some began an email support group.[56] Patrick Harten, the controller who had worked the flight, said that "the hardest, most traumatic part of the entire event was when it was over", and that he was "gripped by raw moments of shock and grief".[57]

In an effort to prevent similar accidents, officials captured and gassed 1,235 Canada geese at 17 locations across New York City in mid-2009 and coated 1,739 goose eggs with oil to smother the developing goslings.[58] To date (2017) 70,000 birds have been intentionally slaughtered in NYC as a result of the Hudson ditching.[59][60]


The plane being recovered from the river during the night of January 17

The partially submerged plane was moored to a pier near the World Financial Center in Lower Manhattan, roughly 4 miles (6 km) downstream from the ditching location.[28] The left engine, detached by the ditching, was recovered from the riverbed.[61] On January 17 the aircraft was barged[62] to New Jersey.[63]

The initial National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) evaluation that the plane had lost thrust after a bird strike[64] was confirmed by analysis of the cockpit voice and flight data recorders.[65]

Two days earlier the plane had experienced a less severe compressor stall,[66] but the affected engine was restarted. A faulty temperature sensor was replaced, and inspection verified the engine had not been damaged in that incident.[67]

On January 21, the NTSB found evidence of soft-body damage in the right engine along with organic debris including a feather.[68] The left engine also evidenced soft body impact, with "dents on both the spinner and inlet lip of the engine cowling. Five booster inlet guide vanes are fractured and eight outlet guide vanes are missing." Both engines, missing large portions of their housings,[69] were sent to the manufacturer for examination.[70] On January 31, the plane was moved to Kearny, New Jersey. The bird remains[67][71] were later identified by DNA testing to be Canada geese, which typically weigh more than engines are designed to withstand ingesting.[67]

Because the plane was assembled in France, the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA; the European counterpart of the FAA) and the Bureau d'Enquêtes et d'Analyses pour la Sécurité de l'Aviation Civile (BEA; the French counterpart of the NTSB) joined the investigation, with technical assistance from Airbus and GE Aviation/Snecma, respectively the manufacturers of the airframe and the engines.[72]

Goose feather found in the left engine

The NTSB used flight simulators to test the possibility that the flight could have returned safely to LaGuardia or diverted to Teterboro; only seven of the thirteen simulated returns to La Guardia succeeded, and only one of the two to Teterboro. Furthermore, the NTSB report called these simulations unrealistic: "The immediate turn made by the pilots during the simulations did not reflect or account for real-world considerations, such as the time delay required to recognize the bird strike and decide on a course of action." A further simulation, in which a 35-second delay was inserted to allow for those, crashed.[12]:50 In testimony before the NTSB, Sullenberger maintained that there had been no time to bring the plane to any airport and that attempting to do so would likely have killed those onboard and more on the ground.[73]

The Board ultimately ruled that Sullenberger had made the correct decision,[73] reasoning that the checklist for dual-engine failure is designed for higher altitudes when pilots have more time to deal with the situation, and that while simulations showed that the plane might have just barely made it back to LaGuardia, those scenarios assumed an instant decision to do so, with no time allowed for assessing the situation.[74]

On May 4, 2010, the NTSB issued its final report, which identified the probable cause as "the ingestion of large birds into each engine, which resulted in an almost total loss of thrust in both engines."[12]:123 The final report credited the outcome to four factors: good decision-making and teamwork by the cockpit crew (including decisions to immediately turn on the APU and to ditch in the Hudson); the fact that the A320 is certified for extended overwater operation (and hence carried life vests and additional raft/slides) even though not required for that route; the performance of the flight crew during the evacuation; and the proximity of working vessels to the ditching site. Contributing factors were good visibility and fast response times from the ferry operators and emergency responders. The report made 34 recommendations, including that engines be tested for resistance to bird strikes at low speeds; development of checklists for dual-engine failures at low altitude, and changes to checklist design in general "to minimize the risk of flight crewmembers becoming stuck in an inappropriate checklist or portion of a checklist"; improved pilot training for water landings; provision of life vests on all flights regardless of route, and changes to the locations of vests and other emergency equipment; research into improved wildlife management, and technical innovations on aircraft, to reduce bird strikes; research into possible changes in passenger brace positions; and research into "methods of overcoming passengers' inattention" during preflight safety briefings.[12]:124

Author and pilot William Langewiesche asserted that insufficient credit was given to the A320's fly-by-wire design, by which the pilot uses a side-stick to make control inputs to the flight control computers. The computers then impose adjustments and limits of their own to keep the plane stable, which the pilot cannot override even in an emergency. This design allowed the pilots of Flight 1549 to concentrate on engine restart and deciding the course, without the burden of manually adjusting the glidepath to reduce the plane's rate of descent.[44] However, Sullenberger said that these computer-imposed limits also prevented him from achieving the optimum landing flare for the ditching, which would have softened the impact.[75]

Crew awards and honorsEdit

The reactions of all members of the crew, the split second decision making and the handling of this emergency and evacuation was "text book" and an example to us all. To have safely executed this emergency ditching and evacuation, with the loss of no lives, is a heroic and unique aviation achievement.

An NTSB board member called the ditching "the most successful ... in aviation history. These people knew what they were supposed to do and they did it and as a result, no lives were lost."[76] New York State Governor David Paterson called the incident "a Miracle on the Hudson."[50][77] U.S. President George W. Bush said he was "inspired by the skill and heroism of the flight crew," and praised the emergency responders and volunteers.[78] President-elect Barack Obama said that everyone was proud of Sullenberger's "heroic and graceful job in landing the damaged aircraft." He thanked the crew, whom he invited to his inauguration five days later.[79]

The Guild of Air Pilots and Air Navigators awarded the crew the rarely bestowed Master's Medal on January 22, 2009 for outstanding aviation achievement, at the discretion of the Master of the Guild.[4] New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg presented the crew with the Keys to the City, and Sullenberger with a replacement copy of a library book lost on the flight, Sidney Dekker's Just Culture: Balancing Safety and Accountability.[80] Rescuers received Certificates of Honor.[81]

The crew received a standing ovation at the Super Bowl XLIII on February 1, 2009,[82] and Sullenberger threw the ceremonial first pitch of the 2009 Major League Baseball season for the San Francisco Giants. His Giants jersey was inscribed with the name "Sully" and the number 155Template:Sndthe count of people aboard the plane.[83]

On July 28, passengers Dave Sanderson and Barry Leonard organized a thank you luncheon for emergency responders from Hudson County, New Jersey, on the shores of Palisades Medical Center in North Bergen, New Jersey, where 57 passengers had been brought following their rescue. Present were members of the U.S. Coast Guard, North Hudson Regional Fire and Rescue, NY Waterway Ferries, the American Red Cross, Weehawken Volunteer First Aid, the Weehawken Police Department, West New York E.M.S., North Bergen E.M.S., the Hudson County Office of Emergency Management, the New Jersey E.M.S. Task Force, the Guttenberg Police Department, McCabe Ambulance, the Harrison Police Department, and doctors and nurses who treated survivors.[84]

Sullenberger was named Grand Marshal for the 2010 Tournament of Roses Parade in Pasadena, California.

N106US on display at Carolinas Aviation Museum

In August 2010, aeronautical chart publisher Jeppesen issued a humorous approach plate titled "Hudson Miracle APCH," dedicated to the five crew of Flight 1549 and annotated "Presented with Pride and Gratitude from your friends at Jeppesen."[85]

Sullenberger retired on March 3, 2010, after thirty years with US Airways and its predecessor, Pacific Southwest Airlines. At the end of his final flight he was reunited with Skiles and a number of the passengers from Flight 1549.[86]

N106US, the accident aircraft, was moved to a salvage yard in New Jersey and put up for auction a week after the accident, but remained without takers for over two years. In 2011, it was purchased by the Carolinas Aviation Museum in Charlotte, North Carolina, and reassembled, minus the engines, in the museum's main hangar, where it is currently on display.[87][88][89]

In 2013, the entire crew was inducted into the International Air & Space Hall of Fame at the San Diego Air & Space Museum.[90]


The ditching was recorded by several closed-circuit television cameras. Television reports and documentaries produced soon afterward contained extensive video of the ditching and rescue, and recorded interviews with the aircrew, passengers, rescuers, and other key participants.[citation needed]

Sullenberger's 2009 memoir, Highest Duty: My Search for What Really Matters was adapted into a feature film Sully, directed by Clint Eastwood.[91] It starred Tom Hanks as Sullenberger and Aaron Eckhart as co-pilot Jeff Skiles.[92] It was released by Warner Bros. on September 9, 2016.[93]

See alsoEdit

Template:Portal List of airline flights that required gliding


  1. AWE1549, also designated under a Star Alliance codeshare agreement as United Airlines Flight 1919 UA1919.
  2. Delivered in 1999,[6] the plane, registered N106US, was one of 74 A320s then in service at US Airways. At the time of the accident its airframe had logged 16,299 flights totaling 25,241 flight hours; and the engines 19,182 and 26,466 hours. The last "A Check" (performed every 550 flight hours) was passed on December 6, 2008, and the last C Check (annual comprehensive inspection) on April 19, 2008.[5][7] The aircraft was delivered to US Airways in August 1999. At the time of the accident, the aircraft was 9.6 years old.[8]Template:Par break
  3. The engines are the primary source of electrical and hydraulic power for the aircraft flight control systems,[21] but an auxiliary power unit (APU) can provide backup electrical power, and a ram air turbine (RAT) can be deployed into the airstream to provide backup hydraulic pressure and electrical power at certain speeds.[21] Both the APU and RAT were operating as the plane descended onto the river.[21]
  4. The Airbus A320 has a control that closes valves and other openings in the fuselage, in order to slow flooding after a water landing,[37] but the pilots did not activate it.[25] Sullenberger later said this would have made little difference since the water impact tore substantial holes in the fuselage.[13]
  5. A serious injury is defined as any injury that (1) requires hospitalization for more than 48 hours, starting within seven days from the date that the injury was received; (2) results in a fracture of any bone, except simple fractures of fingers, toes, or the nose; (3) causes severe hemorrhages or nerve, muscle, or tendon damage; (4) involves any internal organ; or (5) involves second- or third-degree burns or any burns affecting more than 5 percent of the body surface. A minor injury is defined as any injury that does not qualify as a fatal or serious injury.[48]


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