- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 18, 2009

NEW YORK | The birds flew majestically, in perfect formation, and the co-pilot saw them coming.

For a moment, it looked like they would pass beneath US Airways Flight 1549, but when Capt. Chesley B. “Sully” Sullenberger looked up, they were there in his windscreen.

His first instinct was to duck. Then there were thumps, a burning smell and silence as both jet engines cut out.

For a moment, the Airbus A320 hung in the sky 3,000 feet above the Bronx, its engines so completely silent that one flight attendant said it sounded like being in a library.

Investigators provided this dramatic new description Saturday of what unfolded on the flight in the five brief minutes between its takeoff from LaGuardia Airport on Thursday and its textbook splashdown in the Hudson River.

The plane had been in the air for only 90 seconds when disaster struck. Air traffic controllers hadn’t picked up the birds on their radar screens and were still giving climbing instructions when the pilot radioed that something had gone very wrong.

“Aaah, this is Cactus 1549,” he said. “We lost thrust in both engines. We are turning back toward LaGuardia.”

But Capt. Sullenberger announced a new destination within moments. He reasoned that his jet was “too low, too slow” and near too many tall buildings to reach any airport. “We can’t do it,” he told air traffic control. “We’re going to be in the Hudson.”

National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) member Kitty Higgins recounted those radio transmissions and gave a detailed summary of Capt. Sullenberger’s testimony to the investigation team Saturday. She also recounted the NTSB’s interview with the plane’s first officer, Jeff Skiles, and three flight attendants.

Their account illustrated how quickly things deteriorated during the flight, and laid out the split-second command decisions that ultimately ensured that everyone aboard the plane survived.

The flight was supposed to have been the last leg of a four-day trip. The crew had begun the day in Pittsburgh, flown to Charlotte, N.C., then to LaGuardia, and were to head back to Charlotte in the afternoon. It got departure clearance at 3:25 p.m., and a minute later the jet was 700 feet in the air, heading north.

The birds came out of nowhere, Miss Higgins said. They hadn’t been on the radar screen of the air traffic controller who approved the departure, although other radar facilities later confirmed that their path intersected the jet as it climbed past 2,900 feet.

The passengers knew something was wrong. They heard a thump, then eerie silence. The flight attendants smelled something metallic burning.

Capt. Sullenberger took over flying from Mr. Skiles, who handled the takeoff, but had less experience in the Airbus.

While the pilot quickly leveled the plane off to keep it from stalling and thought about where to land, Mr. Skiles kept trying to restart the engines.

Capt. Sullenberger made a sweeping left turn and took the gliding jet over the George Washington Bridge, and scanned the river. He picked the perfect spot. The channel was 50 feet deep and clear of obstructions.

Capt. Sullenberger issued a command over the intercom, “Brace for impact.” Only 3 1/2 minutes had elapsed since the bird strike.

“Brace! Brace! Head down!” the flight attendants shouted to the passengers.

Security cameras on a Manhattan pier captured the spectacular landing. The crew got two doors open. One water slide deployed automatically. The other had to be activated by hand. Passengers grabbed life preservers and seat cushions.

cAP writers Adam Goldman, Larry Neumeister and Colleen Long contributed to this report.

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