It has been 10 years since US Airways Flight 1549 became known as the Miracle on the Hudson. After bird strikes knocked out both engines of the Airbus A320, captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger and first officer Jeffrey Skiles brought the plane back to earth on the only runway they felt they could safely reach—the wide expanse of the river that separates Manhattan from New Jersey. All 150 passengers and five crew made it off the plane; only five suffered serious injuries.
What’s remarkable is how quickly everything happened, especially given the outcome. Two minutes after taking off from LaGuardia airport, the plane ran into the flock of Canada geese. The birds hit both engines, creating the near total loss of thrust. That was at 3:27 pm. The plane was just 2,800 feet up and nowhere near its cruising speed—meaning the pilots had, maximum, a few minutes to find a safe path to the ground.
Five seconds after the strike, Sullenberger was trying to restart the engines, then he took control of the plane from Skiles, who had been flying. Five seconds after that, he told Skiles to start running through the emergency checklist for dual engine loss , which was designed to handle problems at cruising altitude, when pilots have far more time to cope. Then he reported the problem to air traffic control, saying he needed to return to LaGuardia, and started to turn south.
Within a minute, the pilots had decided it was too risky to return to the airport. Sullenberger later told investigators it would have been an “irrevocable choice.” They’d have minimal time to get lined up with one of the two runways, and without power, just the one shot to get it right. Plus, getting back would mean flying over densely populated New York City in a plane rapidly dropping from the sky. Next, they rejected Teterboro airport in New Jersey, thinking they didn’t have the speed or altitude to make the distance. “Too far away, too low, and too slow,” Sullenberger explained afterward. Newark Airport was even farther.
That left the river below them, which was in fact a rather fine choice. That part of the Hudson is about 4,000 feet wide, so the pilots didn’t have to come down perfectly parallel to the waterway like they would on a 150-foot-wide runway. It’s a whole lot longer, too, so they wouldn’t have to worry about overrunning it if they came down too late. And while water’s not as smooth as a paved runway, it’s an acceptable place to touch down in a pinch.
At 3:29, Sullenberger addressed the cabin for the first time, telling his passengers, “This is the captain. Brace for impact.” A minute later, the plane plowed into the water, quickly coming to a stop. The entire flight was so short, we barely had to speed up this graphic from FlightRadar24 to make the below animation.
Within seconds of the water landing, the crew started the evacuation, guiding passengers out the exits over the wings and out the two front doors, onto the inflated rafts. The first vessel in the area, a ferry, arrived at 3:34. Over the next 20 minutes, nine more boats scooped everyone off the wings and the raft.
From the start, the pilots, especially Sullenberger, were deemed heroes, and the National Transportation Safety Board’s final report into the flight confirmed that ditching in the water was the right move: “The NTSB concludes that the captain’s decision to ditch on the Hudson River rather than attempting to land at an airport provided the highest probability that the accident would be survivable.”
The agency did, however, include a bunch of potential improvements in its 213-page report. (As an investigative body, NTSB can only make recommendations.) It suggested creating a checklist for low-altitude dual-engine failures, reevaluating how engines are designed and tested for bird strikes, and studying the effectiveness of the “brace” position in hard landings (the pose was designed without considering a new type of seat in the Airbus, and the NTSB found it may have contributed to the shoulder fractures of two people).
The old saw in the aviation industry is that safety rules are “written in blood”—they come from experience. Fortunately, there are other inks available. It turns out the brackish water of the Hudson River—after a safe landing—works just fine.
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