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January-February 2010

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Retrospect: January 15, 2009 - Miracle on the Hudson

In his epic poem Hermann and Dorothea, German writer Johann Wolfgang von Goethe suggested that “the happy do not believe that miracles still happen.” The passengers and crew who boarded US Airways Flight 1549 on the afternoon of January 15, 2009, would likely disagree.

The flight took off from New York's LaGuardia Airport at 3:25 p.m., bound for Charlotte, North Carolina, with 150 passengers and 5 crew members on board. Already some 40 minutes behind schedule due to delays caused by de-icing at the plane's previous destination of Pittsburgh, the plane departed the runway under partly cloudy skies and light winds. Less than 2 minutes after takeoff, while the plane was climbing at an altitude of 2,900 ft., the unthinkable happened. A flock of Canadian geese struck the aircraft, disabling both engines and effectively turning the 150,000-pound Airbus A320 into a giant glider. The pilots, Captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger and First Officer Jeffrey Skiles, had only seconds to react. Quickly realizing that a successful return to LaGuardia—or any nearby airport—was likely impossible, Sullenberger made the kind of split-second decision from which legends are born. As the plane descended over the Bronx at a rate of more than 1,000 feet per minute, Captain Sullenberger surveyed the busy urban landscape ahead of him and decided that the best option was to attempt something no one had done before: a ditching in the Hudson River just west of Manhattan.

Caption: National Weather Service Daily Weather Map for January 15, 2009, showing conditions for 7:00 a.m. EST. A fast-moving area of low pressure brought light to moderate snow showers to the New York City region that morning, just hours before US Airways Flight 1549 departed from LaGuardia Airport.

Caption: National Weather Service Daily Weather Map for January 15, 2009, showing conditions for 7:00 a.m. EST. A fast-moving area of low pressure brought light to moderate snow showers to the New York City region that morning, just hours before US Airways Flight 1549 departed from LaGuardia Airport.

Among other factors, Sullenberger had to his advantage the weather that afternoon. A fast-moving winter storm system (known to meteorologists as a “clipper system”) that had brought gusty winds to the New York area the day before—and light to moderate snow showers earlier that day—had already moved offshore, leaving calm but cold conditions and a relatively placid surface along the lower Hudson. Even the largest waves measured only a few inches in height, and the winds—oriented in a northerly flow—were less than 10 mph. Had there been a strong crosswind, it would have been much more difficult to land the plane safely. Less than a year earlier, a strong crosswind nearly spelled disaster for another Airbus A320 when it attempted a non-emergency landing (with both engines working) in Hamburg, Germany. The visibility was excellent and had improved markedly since the snow showers earlier in the day, which had reduced it at times to less than a mile. With visibility now at 10 miles, however, Captain Sullenberger had a clear view as he scanned the horizon to assess his options. In fact, less than a minute before the bird strike occurred, he had remarked to his co-pilot Skiles, “What a view of the Hudson today!”

Caption: Surface weather map (zoomed-in to northeastern U.S.) showing conditions at 4:00 p.m. EST on January 15, 2009. Just minutes before, US Airways Flight 1549 made an emergency landing in the Hudson River just west of New York City after it struck a flock of Canadian geese, disabling both engines.

Caption: Surface weather map (zoomed-in to northeastern U.S.) showing conditions at 4:00 p.m. EST on January 15, 2009. Just minutes before, US Airways Flight 1549 made an emergency landing in the Hudson River just west of New York City after it struck a flock of Canadian geese, disabling both engines.

Although it was the coldest day so far that winter, with temperatures running about 12 degrees below normal, it was not cold enough for ice to form on the river, as it would be just a day-and-a-half later, when a strong arctic air mass would engulf the region in the coldest temperatures of the season. Along with the light winds and good visibility, the lack of ice along this stretch of the Hudson boosted Sullenberger's confidence and his ability to safely land the plane on the heavily trafficked river, where rescuers would quickly be able to respond. From the standpoint of weather and other environmental factors, it seems clear that had the incident occurred just a day or 2 earlier or later than it did, the results could have been much worse. As commercial airline pilot and air travel columnist Patrick Smith wrote in a New York Times opinion blog, “If this had taken place at night, in bad weather [or] with no place to touch down, it would have been catastrophic.”

As it was, the plane remained intact and upright as it made an abrupt landing just north of the Intrepid Sea-Air-Space Museum at approximately 3:31 p.m., just 3 and ½ minutes after the bird strike and less than 6 minutes after takeoff. Almost immediately, passengers began exiting the aircraft, which quickly filled with cold river water from the rear. While some were able to board inflatable life rafts, many passengers had to wait on the plane's wings for rescue boats to arrive. Some resorted to jumping into the frigid waters of the Hudson to reach the boats or in failed attempts to swim to safety. Several passengers slipped off the wings and into the river. For those in the water, a new risk developed. The mercilessly cold waters of the Hudson allowed survivors only minutes before shock and hypothermia would set in. The water temperature at the surface of the river, as measured by nearby sensors from the New York Harbor Observing and Prediction System (NYHOPS) was approximately 35°F, while the air temperature was 21°F, with a wind chill factor of about 11°F. Gabe Wilson, Associate Medical Director of the emergency department at St. Luke's-Roosevelt Hospital, where several of the passengers were treated, told USA Today the fact that many passengers suffered only minor hypothermia “is amazing, based on the weather today.”

To document the weather conditions present when notified of an aviation accident, federal regulations call for a special set of weather observations to be taken when such an event occurs. Such was the case with the special observation taken at 4:03 p.m. at LaGuardia.

With everything that could have gone wrong that day, many things went right. In addition to the extraordinary skill of the pilots, several factors contributed to the successful outcome of the incident, including the weather conditions, which were favorable for landing the aircraft, but dangerous to the passengers and crew once they escaped. Undoubtedly for those who survived the incident with little more than minor injuries, it seems that miracles do, indeed, still happen.

Caption: METAR weather observation taken at LaGuardia Airport shortly after US Airways Flight 1549 ditched in the Hudson River. The remarks section of the observation indicate an aircraft mishap, thus necessitating the special observation.

Caption: METAR weather observation taken at LaGuardia Airport shortly after US Airways Flight 1549 ditched in the Hudson River. The remarks section of the observation indicate an aircraft mishap, thus necessitating the special observation.

Weatherwise Contributing Editor SEAN POTTER is a Certified Consulting Meteorologist (CCM) and science writer who divides his time between Washington, DC, and New York City.

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