Black Boxes in Hand, Full Story Emerges

Engineers fish flight 1549 from river as investigators interview pilots, crew.

January 18, 2009, 1:36 PM

Jan. 18, 2009 -- Investigators looking into the emergency water landing of US Airways 1549 raised the wreckage from the icy Hudson River and moved the plane to New Jersey today, capping a dramatic and elaborately planned recovery effort.

Lifted by giant cranes, the crippled jet was carefully placed on a barge that took it across the river for closer examination.

Investigators also have recovered the plane's black boxes -- the cockpit voice recorder and flight data recorder -- which are being analyzed at the National Transportation Safety Board's Washington, D.C. lab. Official hope soon to retrieve the plane's left engine, which sheared off on impact and which workers using sonar believe they have located at the bottom of the river.

Even as this work continues, remarkable details have emerged about the flight through interviews with the pilots and flight attendants, who spoke with NTSB officials Saturday.

It was a routine takeoff, according to first officer Jeffrey Skiles, who was at the controls of the Airbus A320 when it lifted off from LaGuardia bound for Charlotte, N.C. at 3:26 p.m. Thursday. The plane was climbing to 3,000 feet and accelerating from about 250 mph when Skiles saw a line of birds off to the right. Captain Chesley Sullenberger was looking down at that moment. When he looked up, "the windscreen was filled with birds," said NTSB spokesperson Kitty Higgins, summarizing Sullenberger's account.

The crew described the animals as big, dark brown birds. Sullenberger said his first instinct was to duck. It was just 90 seconds after takeoff.

The crew said they smelled burning birds, and the jet lost engine power. At that point, Sullenberger, a 28-year veteran of the airline, took control of the aircraft. Skiles began working to restart the engines. Investigators say the engine restart checklist is three pages long and usually is undertaken with a jet flying at an elevation of 35,000 feet and with much more time – not at just 3,000 feet and single minutes to act.

In the back of the plane, fight attendants realized something was wrong. They told investigators they heard a loud thud or thump, a sound they have never heard before. All engine noise ceased, there was complete silence. Higgins said one crew member described it as "like being in a library."

Back in the cockpit, the pilots radioed controllers: "We have lost thrust in both engines; we are turning back to LaGuardia," according to Higgins.

But it soon became clear to the cockpit crew that returning to the airport was not an option.

"The Captain decided no, too low, too slow, too many buildings, too populated an area," said Higgins. Sullenberger also ruled out heading for a small airport in Teterboro, N.J., about six miles distant. "It was farther away," said Higgins. "He'd never been there, didn't think he could make it and was concerned that if he didn't make it, it was also a populated area ... the consequences would have been catastrophic."

Their only choice – the Hudson River. The captain told controllers: "We're gonna be in the Hudson," said Higgins.

Even then, Sullenberger made another critical choice. "He made a decision to land near a vessel," said Higgins, "to improve changes for recovery."

Just before the water landing, the pilot told passengers to "brace for impact," and flight attendants shouted out "brace, brace, heads down." The plane hit the water. One flight attendant told the NTSB there was no bounce. She likened it to a hard landing.

They were now it the frigid Hudson river, in 50 feet of water on a winter day.

Flight attendants said they shouted "leave everything, come forward, put on life vests." They opened the forward doors to deploy the evacuation slides, which double as life rafts. One of the slides would not automatically inflate, but a flight attendant was able to manually inflate it.

The passengers began scrambling out the front and over-wing exits. In the rear of the plane, a flight attendant decided it wasn't safe to open the doors -- but a panicked passenger cracked one of them, and water began seeping in.

Nearby ferries and other boats raced to the rescue.

Flight attendants say Sullenberger was very concerned about counting the passengers, and he returned several times to the plane to make sure everyone was off. He and the first officer and a flight attendant were the last off the jet, which was now slowly sinking into the Hudson River.

Splashdown came just three minutes and thirty seconds after the catastrophic loss of power, and just five minutes after the plane left the runway for what all 155 on board expected would be a routine flight to Charlotte.

Capt. Sullenberger had nothing but praise for the work of his crew. "He could not be more happy that everyone got off the plane safely," said Higgins.