Erik Larson

Jan 15, 2009

US Airways Flight 1549

I’ve been following aviation for a while now; my dad is a retired pilot for US Airways, where he flew the 737 (he may have flown you at one time, if you flew in the 1990s). I myself completed ground school last year and have a few hours flight training time in a Cessna 150.

What the heck… this latest the most amazing story… a swept wing dual engine commercial jet at just over 3,000 feet loses power in both engines. This is almost certainly a recipe for disaster, and yet here’s the news reporting no casualities and a successful “ditch” (a technical term meaning it isn’t a crash but a controlled water landing) into the Hudson. This is really something. At roughly 200 knots a plane of that size with even partial engine failure will require an immediate nose down (i.e., it can’t keep climbing!). And with the catastrophic engine failure on flight 1549 there’s no routing to an alternate airport, and the pilot, Chesley Burnett “Sully” Sullenberger III, has no time to do much of anything. He initiates a bank (while losing altitude quickly, I would imagine), and kisses it down on the Hudson with no fuselage failure, and with 155 people (2 pilots, 3 flight attendants, and 150 passengers) alive. “Nice job” doesn’t really capture the moment. This is just simply amazing.

Incidentally, I asked my father once if he ever had a scare when flying commercial for US Air (this conversation happened in November 2001, after a 757 crashed shortly after takeoff from JFK, no survivors). He responded, in his usual matter-of-fact fashion, that he had only one scare. In a blizzard, taking off from Philadelphia. The planes had been grounded for a while, and finally they got a green light to go, which I think was “green” for reasons not entirely explainable by safety criteria alone (management, losing money, saying get the planes up in the sky).

Taking off in a blizzard. Next time you do it, remember this: the turbines in a jet can “flame out” when ingesting liquid, which means effectively that they, well, flame out, like a candle no longer lit. A severe enough storm such as a blizzard can literally extinguish the jet engines (it’s rare, but it can happen). This is effectively what happened to my father, except the engines didn’t extinguish, they “burped”, as he put it.

Taking off, there’s a speed that, once reached, requires that the pilot attempt to get the aircraft airborn, called “V1”. The crew on the Philly takeoff had reached V1, and so had nothing left to do but cross their fingers, sitting on burping jets in a blizzard with hundreds of people on board, hoping that the engines wouldn’t flame out.

I asked what dad and the other pilot said to each other later, and he just said they looked at each other and took a breath, and that was that. Well, dad’s a pilot.

Congrats to the pilot on 1549! All lived (except the geese).