Many of our fellow aviation enthusiasts may have seen the movie Sully last year, based on the incredible true story of an emergency landing on the Hudson River in the US. The circumstances surrounding the emergency and the processes and quick decision making employed saw that the aircraft landed safely, and all 155 people on board survived.

The aircraft

On January 15 2009, US Airways flight 1549 took off from LaGuardia Airport, New York at 3:24pm. While climbing, only three minutes into the flight, Captain Chesley B. ‘Sully’ Sullenberger’s view was completely obscured by a large flock of Canada Geese. Along with his First Officer, Sully realised that both engines had shut down, and the pilots quickly worked through the engine restart checklist. Meanwhile, the aircraft continued to climb slowly. Sully radioed a mayday call, ‘Hit birds. We’ve lost thrust on both engines. We’re turning back towards LaGuardia.’ Passengers and crew reported hearing very loud noises, as well as flames coming from the engines, and a smell of fuel. The plane began a glide descent, and although two options for airport landings were given to the pilots, Sully advised that they would have to land in the Hudson River. The plane passed less than 900 feet over a major bridge, and the passengers were ordered to brace for impact.


In aviation, the term ‘ditching’ refers to an emergency water landing. The Hudson River incident is widely referred to as the most successful ditching in aviation history, as no one lost their lives and there were minor injuries. At 3:31pm the plane made an unpowered ditching, with the crew comparing the impact to a hard landing; the tide then began to move the aircraft. Passengers began to evacuate via the inflatable slide, while water began entering the aircraft through holes in the fuselage and open cargo doors. One passenger panicked and opened a rear door of the plane, which the crew could not reseal. Passengers were urged to climb over seats to exit the aircraft as quickly as possible. Captain Sully walked through the cabin twice to make sure it was empty of passengers, who waited on the slide and on the wings as the aircraft continued to submerge in the water. Fearful of an explosion, some passengers swam away from the plane. The plane was ditched near boats to help with swift rescue; within minutes, two nearby ferries arrived and began lifting people from the wings first. The slides detached to become life rafts, and the last passenger was rescued at 3:55pm.


The most serious injuries included lacerations, and for one passenger, damage to his eyes from jet fuel, requiring him to wear glasses for life. US Airways moved into damage control pretty quickly, giving each passenger a letter of apology, $5,000 for lost baggage compensation, refund of the ticket price, and any belongings that had been recovered. There were reports that each passenger was offered $10,000 as long as they agreed not to sue the airline. Many people involved in the incident, including passengers, crew, and the air traffic controller who had responded to the situation, reported post-traumatic stress symptoms. The aircraft was tied to a nearby pier before being barged to New Jersey.


One of the biggest questions needing to be answered in the investigation of the ditching was whether the plane could have safely landed at a nearby airport. Despite reports after the incident that the aircraft’s engines had experienced problems during previous flights, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) confirmed that the bird strike was the cause of the loss of thrust in the engines. 15 flight simulation runs were conducted to see if the flight could have returned to LaGuardia Airport or diverted to a nearby airport. Although some of the simulations were successful, it was ruled that Sully had made the correct decision in employing the ditching; the aircraft was still flying at a low altitude, and there was not enough time to manoeuvre the plane to achieve a safe airport landing. In 2010, the plane was placed in an aviation museum in North Carolina, where the plane was meant to land. Chesley Sullenberger retired the same year after 30 years as a commercial airline pilot. All of the crew, and most notably Sully, were highly praised for their actions and heroism, and many awards and medals were handed down. Sully wrote a book about his career and the Hudson River ditching, on which the movie was based.

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Although very unlikely to happen during your aviation career, this incident shows how vital preparation and training are when thrust into such a situation. As Sully himself said, “One way of looking at this might be that for 42 years, I’ve been making small, regular deposits in this bank of experience, education and training. And on January 15, the balance was sufficient so that I could make a very large withdrawal.”

If you found this post interesting, you may enjoy reading about Sir Charles Edward Kingsford Smith – A Hero of Australian Aviation or Female Aviators That Changed History.

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