Salvage crews hoisted a battle-scarred US Airways jetliner from the Hudson River and onto a barge late on Saturday, three days after the pilot of the crippled aircraft made what he told investigators was a split-second decision to attempt a water landing to avoid a possible “catastrophic” crash in a populated neighborhood.
Much of the top half of the aircraft appeared as though it might be ready for takeoff — a stark contrast with the charred-looking right wing and the destroyed right engine, which appeared as though the outside had been peeled off.
After a day struggling with the icy waters and the immense weight of the craft, the mood on the shoreline turned festive with the successful operation. Following the long work to secure the plane, people shook hands and investigators took snapshots, while police helicopters hovered overhead.
Earlier on Saturday, Captain. Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger told investigators in the few minutes he had to decide where to set down the powerless plane on Thursday afternoon, he felt it was “too low, too slow” and near too many buildings to go anywhere else, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) account of his testimony said.
Co-pilot Jeff Skiles, who was flying US Airways Flight 1549, saw the birds coming in perfect formation and made note of it.
Sullenberger looked up, and in an instant his windscreen was filled with big, dark-brown birds.
“His instinct was to duck,” said NTSB member Kitty Higgins, recounting their interview.
Then there was a thump, the smell of burning birds and silence as both aircraft engines cut out.
The account illustrated how quickly things deteriorated after the bump at 900m and the pilots’ swift realization that returning to LaGuardia or getting to another airport was impossible.
With both engines out, Higgins said, flight attendants described complete silence in the cabin “like being in a library.”
The blow had come out of nowhere. The NTSB said radar data confirmed that the aircraft intersected a group of “primary targets,” almost certainly birds, as the jet climbed over the Bronx. Those targets had not been on the radar screen of the air traffic controller who approved the departure, Higgins said.
After the bird impact, Sullenberger told investigators he immediately took over flying from his co-pilot and made a series of command decisions.
Returning to LaGuardia, he quickly realized, was out. So was nearby Teterboro Airport, where he had never flown before, and which would require him to take the jet over densely populated northern New Jersey.
“We can’t do it,” he told air traffic controllers. “We’re gonna be in the Hudson.”
The co-pilot kept trying to restart the engines, while checking off emergency landing procedures on a three-page list that the crew normally begins at 10,700m.
Sullenberger guided the gliding jet over the George Washington Bridge and looked for a place to land.
Pilots are trained to set down near a ship if they have to ditch, so they can be rescued before sinking, and Sullenberger picked a stretch of water near Manhattan’s commuter ferry terminals. Rescuers were able to arrive within minutes.
It all happened so fast, the crew never threw the aircraft’s “ditch switch,” which seals off vents and holes in the fuselage to make it more seaworthy.
After the hard landing, the crew’s third flight attendant — the only one in the rear of the aircraft — made the decision not to open the back exits, she told NTSB investigators on Saturday, the day she was released from hospital.