The Art of the Ditch

Chesley Sullenberger
Chesley Sullenberger; drawing by John Springs

Not long after takeoff from LaGuardia last January 15, as the Charlotte-bound US Airways flight was climbing out smoothly over the Bronx on a northerly heading, something hit the airplane. Something that seemed big. There was a loud noise and a collective gasp from the passengers. Some of them had seen something like a flash of brown going into the engines. The airplane began to wiggle a little and decelerate. The flight attendants were still strapped in their seats not near any windows, but they guessed what had happened. There was a smell of something burning. It had become completely quiet. There was no word from the cockpit. A woman would text her husband, “My flight is crashing.”

The airplane was not crashing, but it was definitely headed down. At about 2,500 feet it had collided with a flock of Canada geese flying southwest; geese are not uncommon in the New York area, their ancient migratory routes passing over it. At least five birds had hit the plane, three or more going into and virtually destroying both engines. The copilot, Jeffrey Skiles, had been at the controls, and he and the pilot, Chesley Sullenberger, had suddenly seen, at the same time, the flock of geese slightly above and ahead.

“Birds!” Sullenberger cried just before they hit.

“Whoa!” Skiles said.

They were fortunate that a bird—Canada geese are large—hadn’t crashed directly into the windshield, but the engines were already banging and winding down. Fire was coming from both of them, flames from one and fireballs from the other. Briefly, for some fifteen seconds, Sullenberger tried to restart the engines and also, more or less instinctively since it was not part of the procedure, he started an auxiliary power unit in the tail to maintain electrical power. His pulse rate must have been high, but he said calmly, “My aircraft,” and took over the controls.

Sullenberger was almost fifty-eight years old, an experienced and steady captain who had been flying since he was sixteen. He had learned to fly in high school in Denison, Texas, from a grass field and had gone on to the Air Force Academy and the beginnings of a career as a fighter pilot, during which he had flown a Vietnam-era fighter, the F-4 Phantom. He had never, in his long flying career, had an engine failure. It was hardly surprising since jet engines are simple in design and extremely reliable although subject to damage if anything reasonably substantial comes into the intake. He called New York Approach and said, “We lost thrust in both engines. We’re turning back towards LaGuardia.”

As Sullenberger began a turn to the left to return to the field, Skiles began working on the checklist of air restarting procedures. They had slowed to a recommended gliding speed. In the cabin no one knew what was happening, although knowledgeable passengers could see that they were turning back…

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