NTSB weighs lessons from Hudson landing

WASHINGTON — Federal safety investigators on Tuesday applauded last year’s ditching of an airliner into the Hudson River as an example of an accident in which everything went right, but they still drafted a slew of safety recommendations for how it can go even better should such an event happen again.

Recommendations being considered by the National Transportation Safety Board include changing aircraft engines so that they are better able to withstand large birds. They also want specific procedures for pilots to follow when they lose the use of both engines at low altitudes; current procedures assume engine power will be lost at a high altitude with time to recover.

The board also wants to alert pilots immediately if engines aren’t capable of being restarted so that they don’t waste precious time trying to restart them. They want to improve training for pilots on how to land in water, including landing without engine power. And they want all airports that serve airlines to have plans for reducing birds and other wildlife on airport property.

“What’s important here is how to protect future passengers and help future flight crews should they end up in a situation like this,” said NTSB chairman Deborah Hersman.

US Airways Flight 1549 had just taken off from LaGuardia Airport in New York on Jan. 15, 2009 when it struck a flock of migratory Canada geese, sucking geese into both engines. The Airbus A320 lost all power in one engine and nearly all power in the second, leaving both unable to provide the thrust necessary for flight.

Unable to restart the engine, Flight 1549’s captain, Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger, chose to land the disabled plane on the Hudson rather than attempt to return to LaGuardia. A rupture near the plane’s tail sent water gushing into the cabin, but all 155 passengers and crew aboard managed to escape the sinking craft.

Documents released by the board indicate the plane could have made it back to the airport — barely — but under the circumstances the captain’s decision to ditch into the river was the better choice.

A successful return to LaGuardia would have required Sullenberger to make an immediate decision with little or no time to assess the situation. He also would have had no way of knowing that he would be successful, and therefore would have had to weigh the possibility of a catastrophic crash in a densely populated area.

“Although an emergency return to LaGuardia Runway 13 was technically feasible from an aircraft flight performance point of view, the emergency landing on the Hudson seems the most appropriate decision,” Airbus said in an assessment submitted to the board.

A third of the board’s safety recommendations involve ways to increase the ability of passengers and crew to survive a water landing. Only by “a series of fortuitous circumstances” were the Flight 1549 passengers able to survive, said Jason Fedok, an NTSB expert.