NEW YORK — A jetliner that crash-landed in the Hudson River had lost power simultaneously in both engines after reaching an altitude of only 3,200 feet, the plane's black box recorders revealed Sunday.
The details that emerged confirmed the harrowing circumstances under which the pilot of the US Airways flight carrying 155 people maneuvered the plane over New York City and safely into the water after striking a flock of birds Thursday afternoon.
"The captain makes radio call to ATC (air traffic control) calling mayday and reports that they hit birds, lost both engines and were returning to LaGuardia" airport, said Kitty Higgins, a National Transportation Safety Board member, releasing cockpit transmissions captured on flight data and voice recorders.
The wreckage of the Airbus A320 was being moved by barge Sunday night to New Jersey, where investigators planned to inspect the extent of the damage more closely. Under a heavy snowfall, tugboats began pulling the barge, which had been moored to a seawall a few blocks from the World Trade Center site.
Investigators already have seen significant damage to the tail and to compartments at the bottom of the plane that opened on impact, Higgins said.
The search for the plane's missing left engine is suspended until Tuesday because ice floes in the river make it too dangerous to put divers or special sonar equipment in the water, Higgins said.
She heaped praised the flight crew, led by US Airways Capt. Chesley B. "Sully" Sullenberger, who spoke to NTSB investigators Saturday.
"Miracles happen because a lot of everyday things happen for years and years and years," she said. "These people knew what they were supposed to do and they did it and as a result, nobody lost their life."
Sullenberger had been scheduled to give his first public interview on Monday morning to NBC "Today" show host Matt Lauer, but the appearance was canceled Sunday at the request of the U.S. Airline Pilots Association.
Stephen Bradford, president of the association, said he asked Sullenberger not to engage in any media activities because the pilots association has "interested party" status with the NTSB, which allows it to participate in the investigation.
Pilot, family invited to inauguration
Sullenberger released a statement deferring to the advice. "The Sullenbergers continue to thank their many well-wishers for the incredible outpouring of support," the statement said.
The mayor of his hometown, Danville, Calif., said the pilot and his family were attending President-elect Barack Obama's inauguration.
Mayor Newell Arnerich said Lorraine Sullenberger told city officials that the family would leave for the East Coast on Sunday. She and the couple's daughters haven't seen Sullenberger since he's been hailed as a hero for saving the lives of all 155 on board.
The area where the barge was moored was closed to the public Sunday, but it attracted hundreds of residents and tourists, who snapped pictures of the plane wreckage.
Kelsey Higginbotham, a 20-year-old student at East Tennessee State University, peered at the crippled aircraft Sunday from behind police barricades.
She and a friend had been to Times Square, Central Park and the site of the World Trade Center, where nearly 3,000 people were killed in the Sept. 11 attacks. She said she was struck by the contrast between one disaster in which so many people died and another in which everyone survived.
"It's a miracle," she said. "I guess New Yorkers can't take any more tragedy."
Five white-knuckle minutes
The birds flew majestically, in perfect formation, and the co-pilot, Jeff Skiles, saw them coming.
For a moment, it looked like they would pass beneath the plane, but when Sullenberger looked up, they were there in his windscreen. Big. Dark brown. Lots of them.
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 plane hung in the sky 3,200 feet above the Bronx, its engines knocked so completely dead 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 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."
Sullenberger reasoned that his jet was "too low, too slow" and near too many tall buildings to reach any airport. And heading for Teterboro would mean risking a "catastrophic" crash in a populated neighborhood.
"We can't do it," he told air traffic control. "We're gonna be in the Hudson."
Bracing for impact
The flight was supposed to have been the last leg of a four-trip day. 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. They 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, 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.
Back in the cabin, the passengers instantly knew something was wrong. They heard a thump, then eerie silence. A haze hung in the air. The flight attendants smelled something metallic burning.
"I think we hit a bird," said a passenger in first class.
While the pilot quickly leveled off the plane to keep it from stalling and thought about where to land, Skiles kept trying to restart the engines. He also began working through a three-page list of procedures for an emergency landing. Normally, those procedures begin at 35,000 feet. This time, he started at 3,000.
Sullenberger made a sweeping left turn and took the gliding jet over the George Washington Bridge, and scanned the river, his best bet.
Pilots are trained to set down near a ship if they ditch, so they can be rescued before they drown or freeze to death in frigid seas. Sullenberger picked the perfect spot. The channel was 50 feet deep and clear of obstructions, but only minutes by boat from Manhattan's commuter ferry terminals.
It happened so fast, the pilots never had time to throw the aircraft's "ditch switch," which seals off vents and holes in the fuselage to make it more seaworthy.
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.
Emergency landing in the icy Hudson
Security cameras on a Manhattan pier captured the spectacular landing. The jet came in easy, like it was coming down on land, and threw up spray as it slid on its belly.
Two flight attendants likened it to a hard landing — nothing more. There was one impact, no bounce, then a gradual deceleration.
The first rescuers on the scene were not police or the U.S. Coast Guard, but ferries that offer visitor tours and shuttle commuters between New Jersey and Manhattan.
Within minutes, the sightseeing and commuter ferries were close enough to begin plucking passengers off the wings of the wallowing A320 Airbus. One commuter ferry line, New York Waterway, said three of its ferries rescued 142 of the 156 people on US Airways Flight 1549.
"It was hard to stay with it," said Brittany Catanzaro, the 20-year-old captain of the New York Waterway ferry Governor Thomas H. Kean, who picked up 24 survivors. A sister ferry, the Yogi Berra, commanded by Vincent Lucante, retrieved an infant and a toddler, and when they started to cry it was "the best sound that we could hear," he said.
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