The air traffic controller who handled US Airways Flight 1549 said he thought he was hearing a death sentence when the pilot said he was ditching in New York's Hudson River.
"I believed at that moment I was going to be the last person to talk to anyone on that plane alive," controller Patrick Harten told the House aviation subcommittee Tuesday.
Harten, a 10-year veteran, said: "People don't survive landings on the Hudson River. I thought it was his own death sentence."
The House panel will also hear from the crew of the North Carolina-bound airliner that ditched into New York's Hudson River last month and the air traffic controller who tried vainly to land the crippled plane.
US Airways pilot Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger saysin recent years and his pension has been terminated. Sullenberger says cuts that followed airline bankruptcies after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks coupled with the current recession have placed pilots and their families in an untenable financial situation.
Lawmakers want to know what lessons can be learned regarding procedures and training for emergency landings, and how to reduce the potential for collisions between birds and aircraft.
All 155 aboard US Airways Flight 1549 survived the Jan. 15 river landing after the Airbus A320 apparently sucked birds into both engines. The plane was headed to Charlotte, N.C.
The crew and passengers of a helicopter that crashed en route to an oil platform on Jan. 4 weren't as lucky. The National Transportation Safety Board reported Monday that investigators have found evidence birds were involved in the accident near Morgan City, La., that killed eight of nine people aboard.
A panel of government and aviation experts, including members of a national committee that researches the danger of bird collisions, will also testify before the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.
Harten's testimony is the first time the controller has publicly discussed the tension-filled minutes on Jan. 15 when he tried urgently to get Flight 1549 safely on the ground after it reported striking birds and losing thrust in both engines.
Making lightning-quick decisions, Harten - a controller at the New York radar facility that handles aircraft within 40 miles of three major airports - first tried to return the airliner to LaGuardia Airport, and then sought to send the plane to Teterboro Airport in New Jersey.
First, Harten tried to return the plane to LaGuardia Airport, asking the airport's tower to clear runway 13. But Sullenberger calmly reported: "We're unable."
Then Harten offered another LaGuardia runway. Again, Sullenberger reported, "Unable." He said he might be able to make Teterboro Airport in New Jersey.
But when Harten directed Sullenberger to turn onto a heading for Teterboro, the pilot responded: "We can't do it .... We're going to be in the Hudson."
"I asked him to repeat himself even though I heard him just fine," said Harten. "I simply could not wrap my mind around those words."
At that moment, Harten said he lost radio contact with flight and was certain it "had gone down."
Afterward, Harten said he told his wife, "I felt like I had been hit by a bus."
NTSB investigators have said bird remains found in both engines of the downed plane have been identified as Canada geese.