Feature

Flight 1549: Bad start, terrific ending

US Airways Flight 1549 lost power just five minutes after taking off from New York's LaGuardia airport and made a "skittering splashdown" on the Hudson River thanks to the skill of Capt. Chesley B. Sullenberger III.

“Darren Beck had just settled into seat 3A of a Charlotte-bound passenger jet Thursday afternoon when he heard a sickening thump,” said Barton Gellman in The Washington Post. Looking out the window, the 37-year-old marketing executive saw the spinning turbine in one of the jet engines sputter and slow down—“almost like something was stuck in a washing machine,” he recalled. Then came the pilot’s announcement: Keep your head down. Brace for impact. Just five minutes after taking off from New York’s LaGuardia airport, US Airways Flight 1549 had been crippled, apparently because a flock of geese got sucked into the engines. As the plane lost power, a devastating crash seemed imminent. Instead, stunned onlookers saw the stricken Airbus A320 bank to the left and make a “skittering splashdown” in the middle of the Hudson River. Its 155 passengers and crew clambered out onto the two wings or slid into the freezing gray depths as the 80-ton aircraft took on water. Within minutes, an improvised flotilla of police and fire department boats, Coast Guard vessels, and ordinary tour ships and ferries had plucked the victims from the water—without a single life lost.

“A miracle?” said the New York Post in an editorial. “So it would seem. But that’s not quite the case.” By all accounts, the “well-practiced professionalism” of the flight crew and rescue responders averted disaster. Above all, Capt. Chesley B. Sullenberger III proved to be a “masterful” pilot. Masterful? That’s an understatement, said Joye Brown in Newsday. The top flier in his graduating class at the U.S. Air Force Academy, Sullenberger, 57, has been flying since he was 14, is a safety expert, and even flies gliders. All this skill and experience enabled him to coast down to a water landing so smooth it was as if he’d landed on a runway. “It was a jaw-dropping achievement.”

The country needed a boost like this, said Mark Washburn in the Charlotte, N.C., Observer. For months we’ve been battered by financial meltdowns, huge job losses, Ponzi schemes, and other bad news. But then comes an uplifting story of skill, courage, and heroism, complete with a happy ending. And it happened in New York City, “a place that knows calamity.” The Airbus eventually floated downriver to within just three blocks of the vast pit of ground zero—a poignant yet somehow appropriate pairing. “In an era where nothing seems to be going well, the brief adventure of Flight 1549 seems to be a case of everything going perfectly.”

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