Cool Under Pressure

8:20 PM

Recordings of US Airways Flight 1549's precious few minutes in the air were released today by FAA. Any person listening to the comm chatter between the flight's Captain, Chesley B. Sullenberger, and New York Tracon Controller Patrick Harten can easily hear a professional pilot and ATC veteran doing their jobs.

But to the pilots who listen to these tapesavailable from FAA herethey confirm what we already knew...that "Sully" and FO Jeffrey Skiles were highly-trained at emergency procedures, capable of making the right decisions when 150+ lives depended on their quick thinking and cool heads. On the tapes, you do not hear Sully screaming "we're all going to DIE" or even a faint hint in his voice that his flight was seconds away from a potentially fatal crash.

Let's take a look at what the tapes reveal. For this discussion "Cactus" is US Airways 1549 and "ATC" is Harten in the NY TRACON. All altitudes are MSL and times are UTC (this is not verbatim, it is only excerpted. For full transcripts, go the FAA site here):

At 20:25:51, Cactus tells ATC he's out of 700 for 5,000, and ATC clears him on up to 15,000. All is fine on climb out but at an estimated 3,000 feet, Cactus slams square into a large flock of Canadian Geese. At 20:27:36, a perfectly calm voice from Cactus says "ah, this is, uh, Cactus 1549, hit birds, we lost thrust in both engines - we're turning back to LaGuardia."
At this point, it is clear Cactus is a glider, and some of the busiest airspace in the world now has a serious emergency. There is some back and forth on the tape between ATC and LaGuardia tower as ATC works to clear the airspace back to the airport. At 20:28:05 – just 29 seconds after Sully's mayday – ATC asks if Cactus would like RWY 13 at LaGuardia. Assuming the bird strike happened around 3000 feet, and that Cactus could not climb much higher without power, it is these 29 seconds were Sully and Skiles determines that a turn back to LGA was impossible:
Knowing the glide capabilities of their A320 well, Cactus comes back on :06 later and calmly says "we're unable [to return to LaGuardia] and may end up in the Hudson." At 20:28:31, ATC is still trying to get space cleared for the return to the airport, and tells Cactus to make "left traffic for RWY 31." Another :50 seconds goes by as ATC and Teterboro tower discuss the possibility of Cactus making TEB. At 20:29:21, ATC clears Cactus for a landing on RWY 1 at TEB, but by this time, the crew of 1549 has made their decision to ditch.
After the "cleared to land" instruction for RWY 1 at TEB, an exchange takes place that has to be a controller's worst nightmare come true:
Cactus comes back to the landing clearance with "we can't do it", and ATC thinks Sully means he can't make RWY 1 at TEB, asking "okay, which runway would you like at Teterboro?" The cool in Sully's voice is chilling as he calmly says "we're gonna be in the Hudson." ATC asks Cactus to "say again" but in seconds, US Airways 1549 drops off the radar screen at NY TRACON. The rest is history.
I urge ALL pilots to go and download both the New York Tracon Audio (MP3, 18.77 MB) and New York Tracon Transcript (PDF, 309 KB)...and then carefully study what came down. This is a textbook example of staying cool in an emergency, and we can all learn a lot from Sully and Skiles.

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