WASHINGTON - When US Airways Flight 1549 splashed into the Hudson River on Jan. 15, its fuselage ruptured, sending water gushing into the cabin. Passengers, some with water up to their necks, struggled to reach exits. There weren't enough life rafts for everyone because two rafts in the rear of the plane were underwater.
Nevertheless, the performance of the Airbus A320 was praised by witnesses at the National Transportation Safety Board hearing yesterday as a key factor in the survival of all 155 people aboard.
The plane descended into the Hudson at a rate more than three times what the structure of the A320 was designed to withstand on impact with water, and yet the plane remained mostly intact, expert witnesses told the board during the second day of a three-day hearing about safety concerns that have arisen from the accident.
Besides the ruptured fuselage, an engine separated from a wing and sank to the bottom of the river. But the fuel tanks remained attached, witnesses said, which helped to keep the plane afloat long enough for the passengers and crew to be rescued. Jet fuel is more buoyant than water.
"I think the performance of the airframe was instrumental in the survival of the occupants," said Jeff Gardlin, an aerospace engineer with the Federal Aviation Administration.
Despite the near-catastrophe, Airbus officials were clearly proud of the plane's performance.
"The structure did its job. It protected the passengers," said David Fitzsimmons, a senior structure expert for the French aircraft-maker. "I am certainly satisfied."
The skills of Flight 1549's pilots - Capt. Chesley Sullenberger and First Officer Jeffrey Skiles - were lauded by experts as a nearly perfect response to two situations that most pilots never confront separately, and certainly not together: the failure of both the plane's engines at once, and a forced water landing.
Flight 1549 struck a flock of Canada geese shortly after taking off from New York's LaGuardia Airport, sucking birds into both engines. The plane was at about 2,800 feet and less than five miles from LaGuardia. Sullenberger told the board Tuesday that he did not try to return to the airport or try to reach other airports across the river in New Jersey because he thought, "I cannot afford to be wrong."
Instead of risking a crash in a densely populated area, he glided the plane into a landing near Manhattan's ferry terminals, to increase the chances of rescue. In the 31/2 minutes that passed between the bird strike and the water impact, the pilots tried to go through an emergency-procedures checklist as swiftly as they could.
Even though they couldn't complete the checklist, it was remarkable, witnesses said, that the pilots were able to work their way down the list far enough to try restarting both engines. The procedures are written with an emergency at higher altitudes in mind, typically more than 10,000 feet.