Treacherous Conditions Complicate Recovery of Plane

Crane is raising plane onto barge so investigators can recover "black box."

ByABC News
January 16, 2009, 10:11 AM

Jan. 17, 2009— -- Engineering crews began the painstaking process of lifting a downed jetliner from the frigid Hudson River in New York City this evening, and investigators revealed new details about the flight's chilling last minutes before the crash.

With floodlights lighing the area in lower Manhattan, workers were planning to lift the fuselage of the US Airways jet one foot at a time, to allow the water that filled the plane to drain out as it is removed from the icy river.

The removal of the plane originally was to have begun at 10 a.m. this morning, but the effort was complicated by ice floes moving down the river, extremely low temperatures and a strong river current that pinned half of the plane beneath pilings at the pier where it was towed Thursday.

US Airways flight 1549 ditched into the Hudson River Thursday.

At a news conference held by the National Transportation Safety Board this evening, investigators said the pilot and copilot described how moments after takeoff from Laguardia Airport, they looked up and saw they had flown into a flock of geese.

Co-pilot Jeff Skiles, who was flying the plane at takeoff, told investigators that when he saw the birds coming he made a note of it. When Capt. Chesley B. "Sully" Sullenberger looked up, he told investigators, he saw the windscreen suddenly filled with big, dark-brown birds.

The next thing the crew knew, NTSB board member Kitty Higgins said, there was a thump, the smell of burning birds, and silence as both aircraft engines cut out, according to The Associated Press.

Today divers discovered that the right engine was still attached to the plane. Previously, investigators believed that both engines had been sheered from the wings during the emergency landing.

As one team of investigators used sonar to scour the Hudson for the missing left engine, another prepared to draw the 80-ton plane from the frigid waters with the use of a crane and to carefully place it on a barge, Higgins said at a news conference Friday.

Once the aircraft is on the barge, officials will remove the flight recorders or the "little black box," a veritable treasure trove of in-flight information for the doomed plane's last moments, from the tail section. The plane will then be taken to a "secure" location for examination.

"We made an effort to try and remove the recorders while the plane was in the water," Higgins said. But the limited dive time caused by the extreme cold and powerful currents made retrieving the recorders "not possible."

The NTSB began interviewing Sullenberger, the pilot of the aircraft and hero of the day, today. Sullenberger took a congratulatory call from President Bush Friday and has developed a national fanbase since his expert splash landing kept the 155 people onboard alive and largely uninjured.

In a frantic 911 call, an unidentified man from the Bronx described the remarkable splash landing, the Associated Press reported.

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

"The pilot is the ultimate decision-maker. Why he made the choices he did is what we want to learn," Higgins said. "We want to look into everything that made yesterday so survivable."

Investigators are interested in the plane's engines because they likely hold important clues needed to make as accurate a determination as possible on what exactly caused the plane to lose power soon after accelerating off the runaway at LaGuardia Airport in New York.

Sullenberger reported two bird strikes shortly after takeoff and said that he was losing power. The Airbus 320's engine is built to withstand a 4-pound bird strike.

"One of the reasons we want to get the engines is because there will be physical evidence retained. ... If, in fact, there was any kind of damage from a bird, it will show up," Higgins said. "It's a very important piece of the puzzle."

In a twist on luck and public response to the incident, the New York State Lottery said the numbers 1549 -- the flight's designation -- are sold out through next Tuesday night on the Win 4. Wagering on numbers 1549 has been cut off because the lottery has already reached the $5 million cap.

A day after the plane's spectacular splashdown opposite Manhattan's skyscrapers, New York's Mayor Michael Bloomberg said the fact that no one died in the crash into the icy river was more than luck and he handed out commendations for the miracle rescue of a jetliner.

He also said he was waiting to give a key to the city to the plane's pilot, Sullenberger.

Passengers agreed that "Sully," as he's known, and co-pilot Jeff Skiles were the heroes of the day. They also credited flight attendants Sheila Dail, Doreen Welsh and Donna Dent for helping to make the plane's landing a success.

"They're the Tiger Woods of pilots," said passenger Matt Kane. "Unbelievable."