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January 16, 2009

"In the Event of a Water Landing": What Flight Training Says About Ditching

Peterson joins a group of JetBlue flight attendants and pilots practicing their survival
skills--including ditching an aircraft--in a Miami swimming pool.

Photo: Mark Greenberg/World Picture News for Blue Streak

Barbara S. Peterson underwent flight attendant training while reporting for her 2004 book on JetBlue, Blue Streak. Yesterday, Barbara dipped into those memories as she, and the rest of us, came to grips with the "Miracle on the Hudson."

Jan. 15: Here are some thoughts written as I sit in the Oasis lounge at JFK Terminal 4, looking at a tarmac that is still covered with a dusting of snow--a reminder of how today, the coldest day of the season, saw the unreal spectacle of 155 passengers and crew ditching US Airways flight 1549, bound for Charlotte, in an ice-cold Hudson River just minutes after it had taken off from LaGuardia. As it happened, I bumped into two people I know at JetBlue, which flies the same type of plane--the Airbus A320--that landed in the drink earlier today. (And wouldn't you know it, apparently the JetBlue PR department is getting calls from TV people interested in talking to one of its own pilots, who made a heroic landing a few years ago--under very different circumstances.) 

Speaking of the media, lots of people in this lounge are hunched over laptops or are watching TV for the latest news of this bizarre episode. As my JetBlue acquaintances put it, the mood in aviation circles is of amazement and relief over the chain reaction of events: a jet lost two engines, which is almost unheard of, followed by a successful ditching in the water with no casualties--an even rarer (if not totally unprecedented) event. 

So what was it like aboard that plane as it descended into the water?

From what we can gather, the pilot radioed controllers about three minutes into the flight reporting a "double bird strike" that took out both of its engines; the controllers made preparations for the plane to return to LaGuardia, and then New Jersey's Teterboro, which caters mainly to private jets. Reportedly, it came within 900 feet of the George Washington Bridge as it headed for landing in the river--coincidentally, right near the aircraft carrier Intrepid near 42nd Street.

Fortunately, it was also near midtown Manhattan and its never-ending stream of ferries and tour boats. These craft played a major part in pulling the passengers off the plane. Having been through a few emergency drills myself while reporting on training for pilots and flight attendants, I'm amazed that everyone got off. As one of my airline manuals describes it, when a ditching is imminent, the crew essentially yells at the passenger to "prepare for landing" and "assume the brace position," which had, of course, been demonstrated in the pre-flight safety briefing, if anyone paid attention. 

As soon as the plane "lands," flight attendants are to "assess the conditions of exit doors" and then guide the passengers out. Interestingly, the manual I have is for an A320, the same plane. The manual notes: "over wing exits are not to be used in ditching except as a last resort." Apparently, that's just what it was today.

Further reading:
* New York Times updates from the plane rescue, including a slide show of reader-submitted photographs
* This site hosts an FAA-USDA report on wildlife strikes to aircraft
* On the Fly: The airline industry


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