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US Airways pilot relives moment when he hit a flock of birds

WASHINGTON — From the ground at New York's LaGuardia Airport in January, nothing seemed odd about US Airways Flight 1549 — already at 1,500 feet and climbing two minutes after takeoff — until these words came over the radio: "Mayday. Mayday. Mayday."

The plane had hit a flock of birds. It had lost thrust and couldn't stay aloft. It was turning back.

Using the flight's code name of Cactus, the air traffic controller reacted immediately, advising Capt. Chesley Sullenberger to bank left, asking whether he wanted Runway 13.

"We're unable," Sullenberger replied, according to documents released Tuesday. "We may end up in the Hudson."

For another minute and 25 seconds, the controller on the ground offered options. What about the nearby airport at Teterboro, N.J.?

"Yes," Sullenberger said.

At an altitude of a few hundred feet and falling, however, the captain already had made his decision.

"We're gonna be in the Hudson."

"I'm sorry, say again, Cactus?"

After 20 seconds of nothing, the controller asked again. "Cactus, uh . . . ?"

In the cockpit, an automated computer voice chanted: "Too low. Terrain . . . too low. Terrain. . . . "

The National Transportation Safety Board on Tuesday released transcripts and about a thousand pages of interviews, photographs and other documents about the accident, providing the fullest picture yet of the abbreviated flight and unique landing of US Airways Flight 1549 on Jan. 15.

The plane, bound for Charlotte, N.C., hit a flock of Canada geese just after takeoff, snuffing both engines and forcing the aircraft to a controlled splashdown in the Hudson River, an event that quickly became known as the "Miracle on the Hudson."

All 155 people aboard survived.

The NTSB began three days of hearings into the accident Tuesday, trying to ferret out facts about issues such as pilot and flight attendant training on ditching in water, life rafts, bird strikes and how well passengers pay attention to safety instructions.

Sullenberger testified that there were no warnings about birds in the area, and no flight simulation training on water landings.

He acknowledged that there wasn't enough space on the life rafts for all 155 people onboard, leaving some to stand on the wings.

Also, as planes become more automated and airlines struggle with downsizing, Sullenberger reinforced the importance of pilot experience and of giving captains the autonomy to make decisions in life-threatening situations.

"A captain's authority is a precious thing," he said.

The final results of the investigation aren't expected for months.

Sullenberger testified for about 40 minutes. A passenger, Billy Campbell, spoke for about half an hour.

According to documents and testimony, First Officer Jeffrey Skiles was piloting the Airbus A320 as it took off at 3:25 p.m. on a frigid, sunny day in New York, rising over the ribbon of water that separates Manhattan from New Jersey.

"And what a view of the Hudson today," Sullenberger remarked.

"Yeah," Skiles answered.

He climbed to about 1,500 feet before seeing a flock of birds in perfect formation ahead, to his right and slightly above him, dark against the blue sky.

Almost immediately, Sullenberger said, they filled the windscreen.

"Birds," Sullenberger said.

"Whoa," Skiles answered.

There were thumps in both engines, then the plane froze as though it had hit a wall.

Sullenberger, the captain and responsible for the plane, immediately took control.

"My aircraft," he called.

They sent the Mayday call and, as Skiles worked through a checklist to restart the engines, Sullenberger weighed his options.

He testified Tuesday that he looked out the window and considered LaGuardia, but figured that he couldn't risk falling short of the runway. If he turned back, the choice was irreversible.

"I couldn't afford to be wrong," Sullenberger testified, his voice shaking slightly.

He considered and cast aside Teterboro for the same reason. The only option, he said, was the Hudson.

Pilots aren't routinely trained for water landings in flight simulators, something that prompted several questions from investigators Tuesday. Instead, they're trained on checklists that assume a much higher altitude — too high, in the case of Flight 1549.

Automated warnings rang out in the cockpit. "Pull up . . . pull up . . . pull up. . . . "

"Got any ideas?" Sullenberger asked his co-pilot, according to the cockpit voice-recorder transcript.

"Actually, not," Skiles said.

Sullenberger looked for a boat-heavy area, to be close to rescuers. He cleared the George Washington Bridge, pulled the nose up and landed butt down, bounced once, then settled into the river.

The fuselage ripped open, and water poured into the rear of the aircraft.

Flight attendants hadn't expected water.

Sullenberger hadn't warned that the plane was landing in the water, something that the flight attendants' association asked him about Tuesday. Would he do it differently next time?

Sullenberger testified that in his only communication over the loudspeaker he chose his words carefully, saying only, "Brace for impact." He feared that the flight attendants would want passengers to start pulling out life vests, rather than preparing for impact.

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