(March 2011) — THERE WERE TWO HUDSON River accidents in 2009. In January, Capt. Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger and copilot Jeff Skiles did an excellent job of ditching US Airways Flight 1549. There was also a tragic event in August, when a sightseeing helicopter and a Piper Lance collided and nine people perished. For me, these incidents resonated with an even more personal note than they might have for other pilots. In January 2006, I ditched a Piper Warrior in the Hudson River and survived, along with another pilot who had asked me to familiarize him with the now-famous Hudson River VFR Corridor. It was the quick response of the New York City Police Department and U.S. Coast Guard rescue helicopters that led to a positive outcome.
Mark Sorey was a low-time pilot at the South Jersey Regional (KVAY) flying club where I was an instructor. In late 2005, he asked me for a flight review and a flight up the Hudson River Corridor. I was a flight instructor with 700 hours of total time and had flown the Hudson more than 20 times. Mark was planning future flights with friends up the Hudson but thought he would first fly it with an instructor so he could get familiarized. I agreed it was a good idea.
We got together a month later on a Saturday. Mark had demonstrated his vast knowledge during the oral portion of the review, and we were off to do some flying.
Mark flew very well. Toward the end of the review, I distracted him by pointing something out on the left, while I gradually reduced the power. We were about 2,000 feet agl with a private corporate airport easily in sight and within gliding distance when Mark went through the steps, ABC, and set us up for an easy glide to the strip. Mark had executed the simulated engine-out perfectly. At about 500 feet I told him to add power and take us back to KVAY. I gladly signed his logbook, documenting that he had demonstrated proficiency on the ground and in the air.
The next Monday, Jan. 2, 2006, our morning weather briefing included freezing rain throughout central New Jersey starting at 3 p.m. I suggested we shoot for wheels up at 11, fly the Hudson River Corridor and be back home in time to avoid the trouble. Mark agreed; we continued with the preflight and were soon on our way.
While climbing through 1,000 feet, I contacted McGuire Air Force Base for flight following. It obliged; Mark leveled us at 3,500 feet and did a fine job of flying while I worked the radios. McGuire handed us off to New York Approach and we descended to 2,000 feet. Only a few minutes later New York controllers gave us the option of staying with them at 2,000 or going lower on our own through the VFR corridor and self-announcing on the common traffic advisory frequency (CTAF). The ceiling of the corridor at that time was 1,100 feet. Mark wanted lower, so we parted ways with Approach, turned on the carburetor heat, descended to 900 feet and self-announced our way.
Just after my position announcement at Ground Zero, Liberty Tours helicopter pilot Tony Sanseverino responded, "Helicopter has Warrior in sight; we are at your 10 o'clock, opposite traffic, 500 feet, making a left turn under you." I scanned, immediately saw the helicopter, and responded, "Warrior has the helicopter in sight.
A few minutes later, just after crossing the George Washington Bridge, it happened. The engine sputtered, the propeller windmilled and we realized we had a complete engine failure.
I yelled, "OK, Mark, we just did this on Saturday. Give me 73 knots and work the restart procedures." I immediately squawked 7700, tuned the radio to 121.5 and clearly broadcast several times, "Mayday! Mayday! Mayday! Piper Warrior, engine out, three miles north of the George Washington Bridge." Somebody responded, asking our position. I repeated, "Piper Warrior, going down, three miles north of the George Washington Bridge."
The ABC procedure kicked in automatically. Airspeed: I had confidence Mark would get to 73 knots and trim it there. Best landing area: I looked straight ahead and saw a barge in the center of the Hudson. We were too low for a landing on shore. Like Sully, we were "going to be in the Hudson." I had recalled reading about water landings, and that it was a good idea to land parallel to vessels rather than straight at them. A position just right of the center of the Hudson would put us a few hundred feet from the barge. Checklist and communicate: Mark was attempting the restart, and I had communicated the mayday calls.