"Miracle on the Hudson" Gets a Second Look

The National Transportation Safety Board is meeting publicly today to formally adopt its final report on the so-called "Miracle on the Hudson", last year's now legendary aviation accident in which US Airways Captain Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger and First Officer Jeffrey Skiles skillfully glided their Airbus A320 jetliner, both of its engines disabled by a bird strike shortly after takeoff, to a water-landing in the Hudson River. 

It was so miraculous that not only did the 155 passengers and crew aboard avoid any serious injury, but, as longtime USA Today Reporter Alan Levin so eloquently put it in his story the following morning, "Some didn't even get their feet wet."

As reported today by The Wall Street Journal's Andy Pasztor, there are a few dozen pages in the thousands of pages that comprise the NTSB's official docket on the investigation of the January 15, 2009 incident that talk about something not widely publicized: In simulators at Airbus's training center in Toulouse, France programmed to recreate the conditions faced by US Airways Flight 1549 on that fateful day, pilots were repeatedly able to turn the airliner around after the engines lost power and successfully land on a runway back at LaGuardia Airport.

Salute to "Sully"

All of this begs a couple of questions: First, were federal investigators second-guessing Sully by staging the simulations? Of course not - They were merely doing their due diligence, as the Board always does, by thoroughly examining every facet of the incident from every conceivable angle. 

Photos: Plane Down in Hudson

Second, did Sully - hailed as a hero for so calmly, coolly, and competently staging that unforgettable water-landing - make the wrong call? The answer to that question too is of course not. As the Board notes in the docket, "The immediate turn (made by the pilots in the simulations) does not reflect or account for real-world considerations such as the time delay required to recognize the bird strike, and decide on a course of action." 

60 Minutes: Saving 155 Souls in Minutes

In other words, there was no way Sully could have possibly calculated that he could have safely landed the plane back at LaGuardia and, even if he had, there was certainly no way that he could have made the decision to do so in time to be successful. That's why the simulations are not expected to receive more than a passing mention at today's hearing. Ditching the plane in the Hudson, as difficult a task as it may have been, was by far the safest choice for the souls on board and, for that matter, for those on the ground below them.

But don't take my word for it, take Sully's -- Captain Sullenberger, now retired, discusses his decision in detail in his book Highest Duty: My Search for What Really Matters.

"I knew that if I chose to turn back across this densely populated area, I had to be certain we could make it," Sullenberger writes. "Once I turned toward LaGuardia, it would be an irrevocable choice. It would rule out every other option. And attempting to reach a runway that was unreachable could have had catastrophic consequences for everyone on the airplane and who knows how many people on the ground. Even if we made it to LaGuardia and missed the runway by a few feet, the result would be disastrous."

But thanks to the courageous and correct split-second decision by the Captain and the uncommon piloting skill of him and his First Officer, the actual result was miraculous.

  • Carter Yang

    Carter Yang is a Washington, D.C.-based producer for the CBS Evening News with Scott Pelley. He covers aviation and transportation.