Friday, January 16, 2009

Let the Second-Guessing Begin

As praise pours in for the crew of U.S. Air Flight 1549, we wondered how long it would take for someone to second-guess the actions of Captain Chesley Sullenberger and his crew.

Consider the headline for this Associated Press article, posted at

"Source: Pilot rejected 2 airport landings"

That headline is grossly misleading; it suggests that Sullenberger and his co-pilot turned down the option of returning to New York's LaGuardia Airport (where the flight originated), or Teterboro Airport in northern New Jersey.

The rest of the story isn't quite as bad, but it's obvious that the AP's Michael J. Sniffen, who wrote the article, has no aviation experience. His account is based on a source who was "briefed" on the crew's communications with air traffic controllers. In other words, the individual who spoke with the AP wasn't in the ATC facility when the plane went down and probably got his (or her) information second-hand. Here's how the "source" summarized the exchange between Sullenberger and controllers, as the U.S. Air pilot weighed his options:

Air traffic controllers first gave Sullenberger directions to return to LaGuardia, but he replied, "unable." Then he saw the Teterboro airstrip in the northern New Jersey suburbs, got clearance to go there, but then again responded, "unable." He then said he was going into the river.

What the "source" (and the AP) fail to note is that "unable" doesn't mean that the Captain rejected emegency landings at LaGuardia or Teterboro. Sullenberger's terse response meant the A320 couldn't make it to either airport, based on the aircraft's altitude, loss of power, and the distances to those airfields.

Heading back to LaGuardia would have required another turn and a dangerous glide over Manhattan, most likely leading to a crash landing--short of the field--in some of the most densely-populated terrain in the world. Trying for Teterboro would have produced the same, disastrous results. In that split second, confronted with a situation few pilots encounter, Sullenberger chose his only viable option: a risky water landing in the Hudson River.

Oh, and did we mention that no one has ever ditched an airliner and everyone lived to tell about it?

Yesterday's "Miracle on the Hudson" is largely the result of an exceptionally skilled U.S. Air crew, and emergency personnel who responded so quickly. That's the real story, not some tripe about "rejected" landings at LaGuardia and Teterboro.

As for the AP, it's about what you'd expect. Stay tuned; the wire service is probably working on another "exclusive," explaining how the Bush Administration was responsible for what happened to Flight 1549.


StormCchaser said...

The media keeps repeating the same falsehood about nobody ditching an airliner with no fatalities.

In 1968, JAL inadvertently ditched an airliner on approach to San Francisco, and all survived. I flew over it the next day in a P-3 Orion and it was pretty amazing - it came to rest with its wheels on the bottom of the shallow bay.

thesixthmoon said...

I noticed that headline too, and thought it's one of the most disgusting examples I have ever seen of ... not "bias" exactly, (I'm sure they have nothing against the pilot) but just general stir-up-controversy recklessness. Is there anyone at AP who grasps the import of what they are saying, and why it's a misrepresentation?


ppjakaJim said...

What else can we expect from AP? The reporter doesn't have the vaguest idea of what happened, but he knows his boss wants something negative.

ppjakaJim said...

Schaser - Do you remember the P5M landed in the open sea with an engine fire and then taxied about 200 miles to Key West?

(The P5M was a patrol seaplane.)

StormCchaser said...


Once of the guys in my squadron had been on the P5M and told me the story.

fmfnavydoc said...

Sully and his co-pilot did the right thing in the situation...didn't have enough power or airspeed to make it back to LaGuardia or Teterboro (didn't want to take the plane over/through population areas), and the Hudson was his only alternative.

How many times have we seen the news where a private pilot had to land a small plane on a road/freeway because of engine problems. I've been doing my ground school training for a private pilot's first try to head back to you take off point, then start looking for options to put the plane down safely. The crew had no other options, except for the Hudson.

Brian Chabot said...

ATC reported the pilot mentioned the double bird strike at 178kts and 3000ft.

From the diagrams I've seen, he was already vectored up northeast a little from his departure from LGA and pretty much right over the Hudson, in a left turn toward his southerly route to Charlotte. At that speed, 3 minutes after take off, that would put him about 9 miles northeast of LGA. The A320 can glide about 2 miles per thousand feet. This gives him a radius of no more than 6 miles to find a place to put down. LaGuardia was right out. Teterboro airport would have been almost exactly 6 miles away. While theoretically possible, there were obstructions along the way and this would leave him zero wiggle room. A turn to the west to go there would likely bleed off more altitude, making it therefore impossible.

What were his choices? City... city... city... Ooh, lookie! A big, flat, relatively calm chunk of water with lots of boats around! Water ditching is extremely hazardous, but you'd be risking your passengers and crew versus all of them plus unknown more on the ground to put it down anywhere else. The Hudson it was then and a good decision, too.

Capt. Sullenberger then executed a PERFECT emergency "landing".

As you point out, there is NO second guessing his landing spot. There was no other viable choice.

The big story for me is how this all came together so perfectly. All involved are to be commended, especially Capt. Sullenberger for his extraordinary handling of the crippled plane.

lgude said...

Capt. Sullenberger nailed the landing and you nailed the media. The news is as much, perhaps more, manipulation of emotion than a recitation of facts. Here people's natural fear of being in a plane controlled by someone else is being manipulated by falsely implying that Capt. Sullenberger was incompetent. LaGuardia called the Mafia 'a bunch of tin-horned gamblers'. In the LaGuardia tradition the media are a bunch of tin-horned shills.

Iam N. Idiot said...

No matter what the twittering media says, Mr. Sully is an incredible hero and role model. What an uplifting story! Unlike the usual crazed killer vet stories, don't expect them to lead with his service background.

Craig said...

I'm sure the bird strike is Bush's fault - something to do with global warming!

TOF said...

The folks on that Airbus were lucky on other counts: (1)If one or more of those birds had gone through the cockpit the aircraft probably would have gone straight in. (2)If they had been a bit lower when they had that bird strike they might not have made it over the obstructions on the river. (3)If the weather had been IFR the pilot certainly would have had a harder time picking out a spot to put the aircraft down.

As it was, the passengers and crew had a highly skilled and experienced pilot who actually knows how to fly. They also had a cabin crew that was well enough skilled in evacuation drills to safely get the passengers out. It also helped that some ferries were right there to come to the rescue.

Everything went right for those folks that day.

Unknown said...

TOF--You comment about bird size reminds me of a military incident in the mid-80s. An Idaho ANG RF-4C recce bird was on a low-level route when it was struck--through the windscreen of the front cockpit--by a turkey vulture.

The pilot was incapacitated and suffered permanent injuries. Luckily, AF F-4 backseaters had full controls and was able to fly the jet back to base, a distance of more than 150 miles. And that bird came through a "hardened" windscreen that's smaller than the windows on an airliner cockpit. You're right; if one of the geese had struck the windscreen, the crew might have been incapacitated, and the flight would have ended in disaster.

BTW, the pilot of that IDANG F-4 was so seriously injured that he was forced to retire

Sassenach said...

Pan Am Flight 943 ditched in the Pacific Ocean; the pax and crew were rescued by the USCGC Ponchitrain. The year: 1956

There's even video:

Sassenach said...

On second thought, maybe that reporter is on to something...all may not be what it appears in this story. For example, did the good Captain use proper TQM techniques to achieve his decision about where to land? Was there at least a multivote? And, what are the diversity figures for the aircraft crew? Shouldn't a woman or minority have had the opportunity to excelat the controls of this aircraft? Also, were there any companion animals traveling in the hold? Why were no attempts made to rescue them? Hmmmm?

There you go -- three solid investigative leads. Let the Congressional hearings begin.

Unknown said...

I am surprised no one has started to squawk about the pollution aspect of the plane's fuel, etc. dumping in the Hudson.

gharms8 said...

I probably should shut up, but I'm amazed how all the news media only reports what they want. The pilot of the airliner that ditched in the Hudson River panicked and no one has explained it. I am a pilot and have had an engine quit on me twice. I put myself in the pilot's place. After the initial panic and cussing in my case, the first thing is to land the plane safely which he did and probably any pilot would have rather than just let it crash. If he had been thinking he would have thought that the water and air were cold, that people in cold water die quickly, that the plane might sink, and that enough rescue boats might not come immediately. YOU DON'T LAND IN THE MIDDLE OF THE DAMM RIVER! You land as close to shore as you can. The water might be shallow and the distance to dry land is closer. Perhaps there are reasons I don't know, but no one has even mentioned this or explained it.

Unknown said...

The test pilots were only able to return successfully to either airport in 8 of 15 attempts.
Would you risk that much? You were a kamikaze...