Hudson River 'miracle' masks safety gaps, NTSB says
US Airways Captain Chesley B. Sullenberger III's "miracle" Hudson River landing last year masked training and equipment gaps that could turn success into tragedy, a federal safety board said Tuesday.
WASHINGTON — US Airways Captain Chesley B. Sullenberger III's "miracle" Hudson River landing last year masked training and equipment gaps that could turn success into tragedy, a federal safety board said Tuesday.
Sullenberger guided his jet safely after flying into a flock of Canada geese, though pilots aren't trained for the type of landing he made on Jan. 15, 2009, said Debbie Hersman, National Transportation Safety Board chairman. His plane carried life vests and rafts, even though such equipment wasn't required for the flight, she said.
"It truly was a miracle," Hersman said at a Washington hearing. "So many things went right." Yet, "If even a single element had changed, the ditching could have ended not as a miracle, but as a tragedy."
The board approved recommendations on training, equipment and bird-strike prevention because "heroism of the flight crew" is not a sufficient assurance of future success, Hersman said. Training for water landings without power and wildlife control at airports are lacking, the agency said.
The NTSB has said at least four Canada geese, weighing 8 pounds on average, crashed into the engines of the US Airways Group jet less than two minutes after takeoff from New York's LaGuardia Airport, robbing the Airbus A320 plane of almost all its thrust.
Sullenberger, 59, steered the aircraft to the New Jersey side of the Hudson less than four minutes later, and all 155 people on board survived. The river landing posed the "highest probability" of a safe result, as opposed to other options such as returning to LaGuardia, Katherine Wilson, an NTSB investigator, told the board.
The success of Sullenberger's water landing was due to "fortuitous circumstances," including good visibility, nearby rescue vessels and the life rafts on the plane, NTSB investigator Jason Fedok said.
Planes operating within 50 miles of the nearest shoreline are exempt from safety-raft and life-vest requirements, and the agency lists 179 airports within 5 miles of "a significant body of water," Hersman said.
Most domestic flights to and from New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, Washington, Miami and Seattle are not required to have the equipment, Hersman said.
Pilots aren't trained or aircraft certified for water landings when engines lose all thrust at low altitudes, Hersman said. While the NTSB has heard evidence of bird populations on the rise, about half the airports with commercial service have no plan to manage wildlife hazards, investigator Mark George told the board.
North America's Canada goose population increased to 5.5 million in 2008 from 1.2 million in 1970, the Agriculture Department told the NTSB last year. Wildlife strikes on aircraft rose to 7,666 in 2007 from 1,759 in 1990.
Seattle Times transportation reporter Mike Lindblom describes some of the factors that may have led to the collapse of the I-5 bridge over the Skagit River in Mount Vernon on Thursday, May 23.