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US Airways pilot tells details of crucial moment

THE pilot of a crippled US Airways jet liner made a split-second decision to put down in the Hudson River because trying to return to the airport after birds knocked out both engines could have led to a "catastrophic" crash in a populated neighborhood.

Capt. Chesley B. "Sully" Sullenberger told investigators that in the few minutes he had to decide where to set the powerless plane down, he felt it was "too low, too slow" and near too many buildings to go anywhere but into the river, according to the National Transportation Safety Board account of his testimony.

The pilot and his first officer provided their first account to NTSB investigators yesterday of what unfolded inside US Airways Flight 1549 in the moments after it slammed into a flock of birds and lost both engines.

Co-pilot Jeff Skiles, who was flying the plane, 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 board member Kitty Higgins, recounting their interview. Then there was a thump, the smell of burning birds, and silence as both aircraft engines cut out.

"My aircraft!" Sullenberger said.

The account illustrated how quickly things deteriorated after the bump at 914 meters, and their fast realization that returning to LaGuardia or getting to another airport was impossible.

With both engines out, flight attendants described complete silence in the cabin, "like being in a library," said NTSB member Kitty Higgins. A smoky haze and the odor of burning metal or electronics filled the plane.

The pilot said he tried to set down near a boat, to increase the possibility that survivors would be rescued, he told investigators. The aircraft hit close to several popular landings, and rescuers were able to arrive within minutes.

After the airline splashed down, commuter ferries and tugs rushed to the rescue. All 155 people aboard were saved.

As the details of the river landing emerged yesterday, investigators worked to pull the airliner from the river. After they struggled most of the day with logistics, a crane began trying to raise the submerged jet late yesterday evening.

With its load of water, the craft was estimated to weigh 453,000 kilograms. The process was expected to last into the night. The jet was entirely submerged next to a sea wall in lower Manhattan and blocks of ice blanketed the river surface and were forming around the plane.

The NTSB reported that sonar teams may have located the sunken left engine of the plane. Preliminary radar reports identified an object directly below the crash site.

Crews need to remove the cockpit voice and flight-data recorders and locate the left engine, which came off and sank following the crash-landing. Divers originally thought both engines were lost, but realized yesterday that the right engine was still attached. The water had been so dark and murky that they couldn't see it.

The conditions were treacherous, with the temperature dipping to minus 14 Celsius degrees and giant chunks of ice forming around the plane. Divers who went into the river had to be sprayed down with hot water during breaks on shore.

Teams worked into the evening to remove the plane, with floodlights shining down onto the scene and emergency boats surrounding the aircraft.

Authorities also released a frantic 911 call that captured the drama of the flight. A man from the Bronx called 911 at 3:29pm Thursday, three minutes after the plane took off.

"Oh my God! It was a big plane. I heard a big boom just now. We looked up, and the plane came straight over us, and it was turning. Oh my God!" the caller said.

At almost the same moment, the pilot told air-traffic controllers that he would probably "end up in the Hudson."

The pilot's wife, Lorrie Sullenberger said "the enormity of the situation" had only begun to sink in Friday night as she watched the news.

"It was actually the first time that I cried since the whole incident started," she said on "The Early Show" on CBS.

She suggested the happy ending was good for the country.

"I think everybody needed some good news, frankly," she said.

Experts say the threat that birds have long posed to aircraft has been exacerbated by two new factors over the past 20 years: Airline engines have been designed to run quieter, meaning that birds can't hear them coming, and many birds living near airports have given up migrating because they find the area hospitable year-round.

Canada geese, one of the most dangerous birds for aircraft, historically migrate not because of cold but a lack of food. Winter weather kills the grass they eat and sources of fresh water freeze over.

But in developed areas, there is often both food and grass year round, found in parks and golf courses.

And there isn't much that be done in the engineering of jet engines to armor them against a strike without hurting their ability to generate thrust.

The most vulnerable part of the engine is the fan, which can be bent or smashed by an ingested bird. Pieces of busted blade then rip through the rest of the engine like shrapnel.


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