WASHINGTON - His engines were out. His plane was dropping toward the water. The 150 passengers were braced for impact. And air traffic controllers were beckoning him to two runways that were close but not close enough.
At that moment, with the unflappable elan that would make him a national hero, Chesley B. "Sully" Sullenberger III, pilot of US Airways Flight 1549, turned to first officer Jeffrey B. Skiles and said, "Got any ideas?"
Seconds later, as the plane splashed down onto the Hudson River in a water landing so deft that all 155 aboard survived, with only five serious injuries, the pilots looked at each other and said, almost at the same time, "Well, that wasn't as bad as I thought."
The dramatic moments were laid out in cockpit recordings, investigators' interviews, and testimony by Sullenberger and others yesterday at a National Transportation Safety Board hearing.
In addition to recounting the final moments of the flight, Sullenberger described the emotional jolt he felt when - shortly after lifting off from New York's LaGuardia Airport on Jan. 15 - his Airbus A320 ran into a flock of Canada geese and instantly lost all power in its two engines.
"If you think I wasn't startled, you misunderstand," he said.
But, he added, he and Skiles quickly shook off their dismay "and moved on to the task at hand."
Federal safety investigators lauded Sullenberger for quick decision-making and keeping his cool, and they pressed him for lessons that could help prevent future accidents.
The NTSB convened the three-day hearing as part of its investigation into the Hudson River incident.
For Sullenberger, Jan. 15 started in Pittsburgh with a flight to Charlotte, N.C., then New York. He picked up a sandwich for lunch before taking off from LaGuardia about 3 p.m. Days later, he realized the sandwich was still on the plane.
Flight attendants ran through safety procedures, but, because the flight was not scheduled to cross water, did not demonstrate the life vests. Only 12 passengers would later report they had read their safety information cards.
As the Airbus lifted off under blue skies, Sullenberger glanced outside. "What a view of the Hudson today," he said.
The plane was climbing between 3,000 and 5,000 feet when the geese appeared - a straight line, perfectly spaced and so close, there was no avoiding them. When they smacked the engines, Sullenberger told investigators, it sounded as if it were "raining birds."
Flight attendants heard a thud, then a sudden quiet as the engines cut out. Some described a "burning electrical smell." Passengers watched the engines catch fire. Sullenberger placed a "Mayday" call, and the cabin filled with cries of "Pray, pray, pray."
The flight lasted all of five minutes - reconstructed as an animated video, overlaid with audio from the conversations between Sullenberger and the control tower.
On the video, which was played at the hearing, seemingly frantic controllers kept directing Sullenberger's attention to runways at LaGuardia and Teterboro, N.J., and the imperturbable pilot kept saying he was going for the Hudson.
It was the only reachable destination long and smooth enough for a landing, he had decided. In the midst of one of the world's most densely populated areas, he testified, "I couldn't afford to be wrong."
Skiles had logged more than 20,000 hours of flight time. But it was only his second trip on an Airbus.
"Asked how he liked the Airbus," investigators reported, he said that he liked it "right up until the accident."
Excerpt from a transcript released yesterday of cockpit and radio communications from US Airways Flight 1549 on Jan. 15:
Capt. Chesley Sullenberger (3:26:37 p.m.): Uh what a view of the Hudson today.
First Officer Jeffrey Skiles (3:26:42): Yeah.
Skiles (3:26:52): Flaps up, please, after takeoff checklist.
Sullenberger (3:26:54): Flaps up.
Sullenberger (3:27:07): After takeoff checklist complete.
Sullenberger (3:27:10.4): Birds.
Skiles (3:27:11): Whoa.
(3:27:11.4): (Sound of thump/thud(s) followed by shuddering sound.)
Skiles (3:27:12): Oh (expletive).
Sullenberger (3:27:13): Oh yeah.
(3:27:13): (Sound similar to decrease in engine noise/frequency begins.)
Skiles (3:27:14): Uh oh.
Sullenberger (3:27:15): We got one rol - both of 'em rolling back.
(3:27:18): (Rumbling sound begins and continues until approximately 3:28:08.)
Sullenberger (3:27:18.5): Ignition, start.
Sullenberger (3:27:32.9): Mayday Mayday Mayday...
SOURCE: National Transportation Safety BoardEndText
Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood yesterday ordered Federal
Aviation Administration inspectors to focus on pilot training at regional airlines. after a fatal crash near Buffalo raised questions about the crew's experience.
LaHood and FAA Administrator Randy Babbitt also called representatives of major and regional airlines to a meeting next Monday in Washington to discuss airline safety and pilot training.
Congress begins air-safety hearings today that will look at the regional airlines. Fifty people died in the Feb. 12 crash of Continental Express Flight 3407, operated by Colgan Air Inc. In May, National Transportation Safety Board hearings aired concerns about such carriers' training, pay, and crew scheduling.
- Bloomberg News