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Plane's performance praised in near catastrophe on Hudson

By Joan Lowy
Associated Press / June 11, 2009
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WASHINGTON - When US Airways Flight 1549 splashed into the Hudson River in January, the fuselage ruptured, sending water gushing into the cabin. Passengers, some with water up to their necks, struggled to reach exits. There weren't enough life rafts for everyone because two rafts in the rear of the plane were underwater.

Nevertheless, the performance of the Airbus A320 was praised by witnesses at the National Transportation Safety Board hearing yesterday as a key factor in the survival of all 155 people aboard.

The plane descended into the Hudson at a rate more than three times what the structure of the A320 was designed to withstand on impact with water, and yet the plane remained mostly intact, expert witnesses told the board during the second of a three-day hearing on safety concerns that have arisen from the Jan. 15 accident.

Besides the ruptured fuselage, an engine also separated from a wing and sank in the river. But the fuel tanks remained attached, witnesses said, which helped to keep the plane afloat long enough for the passengers and crew to be rescued. Jet fuel is more buoyant than water.

"I think the performance of the airframe was instrumental in the survival of the occupants," said Jeff Gardlin, an aerospace engineer with the Federal Aviation Administration.

Despite the near catastrophe, Airbus officials were proud of the plane's performance.

"The structure did its job. It protected the passengers. I am certainly satisfied," said David Fitzsimmons, a senior structure expert for the French aircraft manufacturer.

The skills of Flight 1549's pilots - Captain Chesley Sullenberger and First Officer Jeffrey Skiles - were lauded by experts as a nearly perfect response to two situations that most pilots never confront separately, and certainly not together: The failure of both the plane's engines at once and a forced water landing.

Flight 1549 struck a flock of Canada geese shortly after taking off from New York's LaGuardia Airport, sucking birds into both engines. The plane was at about 2,800 feet and less than five miles from LaGuardia. Sullenberger told the board on Tuesday that he didn't try to return to the airport or try to reach other airports across the river in New Jersey because he thought, "I cannot afford to be wrong."