Jumpseat: US Airways Flight 1549

One of the best resources that I can access in the cockpit is available without a three-ring binder. This resource does not involve a red warning light, an electronic siren or a SATCOM radio. The best resource that I have is by far the guy or gal who's seated to my right.

At no other time has this fact become more publicly apparent than on board the A-320 of US Airways Flight 1549. Until that frigid day in the middle of January, First Officer Jeff Skiles was just another resource.

"The miracle on the Hudson" was no such thing. It was a performance of pure pilot skills and procedural knowledge by an experienced flight crew. If a miracle occurred, it lies in the fact that the two pilots responsible for the successful outcome couldn't have been better suited for their jobs as spokespersons even if they had been hand-picked. Jeff and Capt. Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger portray themselves exactly as they are: articulate professionals.

Although we have mutual acquaintances, the demand for appearances and other circumstances did not allow Jeff and me the opportunity to talk face to face until EAA AirVenture Oshkosh. Despite the weariness of perpetual interviews, he was gracious enough to afford me an airline pilot's perspective on his famous 3½ minutes in a sophisticated glider.

Jeff Skiles has a civilian background similar to mine with the exception that he developed his love for aviation through his family. At separate time periods, his parents owned and operated a Tri-Pacer and a Cessna 182. Jeff began as a line boy and progressed to a CFI. He flew freight in an Aero Commander and eventually a Convair 340 and a Convair 440. Jeff flew Merlin Metroliners back in the day when regional carriers were called "commuters."

Madison, Wisconsin, is Jeff's hometown. He graduated from the University of Wisconsin with a geology degree. I asked him how the degree was assisting his career. "Not so well" was his answer. I agreed.

US Airways hired Jeff in 1986. He served as a flight engineer and copilot on the B-727. He transitioned to the DC-9, also as a copilot. He became a captain on the Fokker 100 but due to the industry slump returned to the first officer ranks on the B-737.

Jeff's most recent career change placed him on the training syllabus for the A-320. The fact that the now-infamous four-day trip was his first after just completing the IOE (initial operating experience) with a check airman gave us both pause to raise our eyebrows and roll our eyes. It is an airline pilot phenomenon that if something is going to go wrong, it is going to go wrong on the first trip after an IOE. Insult was added to injury in that Flight 1549 from LaGuardia to Charlotte, North Carolina, was to be the last leg.

Depending upon the direction of flight, SIDs (standard instrument departures) from LaGuardia's Runway 13 have a level of complication that requires attention to detail. The complication is required in order to prevent conflict with nearby JFK. A southbound departure often involves an eventual turn to the left, which positions the airplane almost on top of the airport. If the wind had favored Runway 13, Sully and Jeff would have had a better opportunity to consider a return to LaGuardia. Of course, a bird strike might never have occurred in the first place.

But in this circumstance, takeoffs were being made from Runway 4. And in this case, the departure was a simple left turn to a heading of 360 degrees. It was Jeff's turn to fly. From the perspective of a pilot new to an airplane, the procedure is a welcome relief. Of course, for Flight 1549, the assigned departure defined the eventual outcome.

As Jeff climbed the airplane northbound, his peripheral vision caught a glimpse of the suicidal flock. He had no time to make identification as to the type of birds. His first thought was that they would fly over the top of the migrating menace. The hail-like thuds that pelted the airplane left no doubt that it wasn't meant to be. The airplane had reached an altitude of 3,200 feet. (Tongue in cheek, we discussed that it would have been better to aim directly at the geese. The odds of a near-miss would have been a more likely scenario.)

Unfortunately, the critters found their way underneath the Airbus wings and through the inlets. Both of the GE engines suffered a rapid loss in rpm, first the right and then the left. The crippled status of the airplane was immediately apparent. Sully and Jeff were experiencing an event that never happens: a dual engine failure.

With the practiced precision of standard airline pilot procedure, Sully announced, "I have the airplane and the radios."

In almost the same motion of resuming control, he reached for the APU start switch and the engine start switches. Sully was not only establishing a backup electrical source, but he was attempting a relight of the engines. These actions occurred without hesitation and without reference to a flight manual. The airplane never lost electrical power.

The responsibility for emergency checklist items fell into Jeff's lap. But there was one caveat. Emergency procedures are annunciated on the Airbus ECAM (Electronic Centralized Aircraft Monitor) screen along with the affected system. The ECAM was doing its job. However, some emergencies are considered "ECAM exceptions," which require the procedure to be completed by reference to the QRH (Quick Reference Handbook) and not via the electronic screen. A dual engine failure was one of these exceptions. Jeff was fresh out of simulator training, and he knew this was the case. He opened his QRH to the appropriate page and began to read.

With limited hydraulic authority being generated by the windmilling engines, Sully adjusted his pitch angle to maintain approximately 210 knots, near the "green dot" or clean minimum maneuvering speed. When I asked Jeff whether he felt that Sully's glider experience aided in their success, he shrugged his shoulders. Not much could have been done other than to descend at the airspeed that offered the best L/D ratio (lift over drag). An A-320 is not exactly the type of airplane designed to soar in thermal lift.

As part of the dual engine failure checklist, the engine start switches are pressed to begin the automatic start cycle. The two pilots could not be certain, but they collectively agreed that the left engine was still operating. At one point in time, Sully had moved the left power lever to determine if at least some thrust was available. It wasn't. Rather than attempt a start on an engine that was already operating, the ignition sequence was initiated only on the right engine.

The RAT (Ram Air Turbine) is a small propeller that is deployed underneath the fuselage for the purpose of providing a limited amount of hydraulic pressure to the flight controls in the event of a dual engine failure. The RAT can be activated automatically or by crew action through a cockpit switch. The NTSB determined that the RAT had deployed. It is still uncertain whether its deployment occurred as a result of the checklist procedure or through automatic operation. In our discussion, Jeff seemed unconcerned in discovering that fact. The bottom line was that it functioned as advertised.

During the course of the glide, Jeff interrupted the flow of the checklist only once. The controller had offered New Jersey's Teterboro Airport as an option. Jeff peered above the glare shield when he heard no immediate response from Sully. Having to try to land on Teterboro's relatively short runways was a disturbing thought. When Sully uttered the simple statement "We can't do it," Jeff felt immediate relief. His captain was still very much in the game.

Interestingly enough, even though LaGuardia itself was offered as an option, the two never considered it a viable possibility. As a matter of fact, it wasn't until 1,000 feet that Sully and Jeff mutually agreed, almost nonverbally, that the Hudson River was the only choice.

Further into our conversation, Jeff admitted that he felt unsettled for a week and a half after the event. A copilot had inquired as to why they hadn't just come back to LaGuardia. After some soul searching Jeff realized that it didn't matter. All 155 people had survived the accident. The scenario might have been different if an attempt had been made to dead-stick the airplane onto notoriously short runways. It was determined later with simulations that LaGuardia wasn't an option anyway.

At 500 feet, while slowing, Sully called for the flaps to be set to two degrees. Although the gauge indicated the selected position, diminished hydraulic power may not have moved the flaps. The airplane was past the point where that problem could have been fixed anyhow.

The impact with the water was firm. Jeff felt strain against his shoulder harness, but nothing horrific. When the airplane came to rest, an evacuation checklist was initiated. Checklist items that were not appropriate for the circumstances were skipped. Setting the parking brakes, for instance, would not have assisted in the evacuation process.

After completing their assigned duties, Sully opened the cockpit door. The evacuation was already in progress. One of the flight attendants was attempting to expedite passengers through the forward entry door, but people were slowing the process by crowding into a small area. Once the crowding situation was rectified, Jeff and Sully noticed that most of the passengers had in typical fashion ignored the emergency briefing that included the location of flotation devices underneath the seat.

When the aisle was clear, the two men waded toward the back of the airplane and retrieved life vests. On their return back toward the cockpit, the water became painfully cold. They walked the rest of the distance forward by climbing on top of armrests.

In a brief moment of revelation, Sully soon realized that he and Jeff were the only ones on board. He suggested that they retrieve their leather jackets from the cockpit and exit the airplane. At no time did either pilot consider or vocalize the fact that they might be on a sinking ship.

Once on board the raft, Jeff admitted becoming obsessed with an attempt to cut the lanyard that tethered them to the airplane. He knew that a knife was part of the equipment on the raft for just that purpose but couldn't remember where it was located. Instead, he requested a knife from a crew member on one of the nearby ferryboats that was participating in the rescue. Once he cut the lanyard, he felt an obligation to return the knife but realized that rubber, an open blade and numb fingers were not a good combination. Considering how the day had gone, it was best not to tempt fate. The knife now rests on the floor of the Hudson River.

One of the boats first in position to accept survivors had a low transom that was conducive to easy boarding. Unfortunately, that boat was jockeyed out of position by an over-eager ferryboat captain. Fishnet-style ropes had to be slung over the sides in order for passengers to climb on board with frostbitten hands. Jeff remembers shaking his head at the irony.

On the ferry boat, Jeff realized that his cell phone was floating with the airplane that he had just ditched. He considered that it might be a good idea to call his wife. He asked to borrow a passenger's cell phone. Without giving his wife an opportunity to speak, he said, "We took off from LaGuardia … we hit birds … we flamed out both engines … we ditched in the Hudson … we think we got everybody out OK. I'm OK. I gotta go."

He pressed the "end" button without waiting for a response. Considering the mental state of shock that he was probably in, his statement was more than enough.

Although Sully and Jeff were whisked off to the hospital, they suffered no injuries. After vitals were recorded, the two pilots were admitted. As per hospital policy, their vitals were recorded again 45 minutes later in order for them to be considered for discharge. Everyone has their rules.

The most terrifying part of the experience involved Sully and Jeff's transportation to their undisclosed hotel location. The NYPD insisted on Mr. Toad's Wild Ride through the streets of New York until Sully indicated in so many words that they had participated in enough excitement for that particular day.

Three days later, after a critical incident stress management (CISM) debriefing, NTSB interviews, numerous phone calls and a serious lack of sleep, Jeff returned home to his family via United Airlines. As expected, the United crew was more than accommodating. The CISM peer support volunteer who was assigned to Jeff offered to accompany him to his front door. Jeff declined. He appreciated the gesture but didn't want the volunteer to be inconvenienced.

When Jeff had time to reflect on the day that will forever be a part of his life, he came to a realization: that the airline pilot profession has real value. One hundred and fifty people understand that notion. Despite the lack of respect that airline management has shown by pay cuts, pension obliteration and overall combative attitudes, to name a few, pilots are not just an expense line on a corporate balance sheet.

Jeff and Sully had never met before they both reported for duty on their trip. The success of Flight 1549 is a testament to flight standards and their professionalism. Does management expect to attract and maintain this quality of experience to their airline without appropriate rewards and working conditions?

Prior to Jeff and Sully beginning their public speaking engagements, neither man had maintained a strict adherence to the company uniform policy. Their frustration in the deteriorated status of their airline reflected in their attitude and their appearance. The leather jackets that they donned before exiting their ditched airplane were from an unapproved vendor. They possessed no uniform hats.

Both men would agree that they weren't portraying the unified image of a professional airline pilot. They now wear the appropriate uniform. It is their statement to management: "I am as guilty as the next pilot in not always adhering to the proper uniform attire. Maybe wearing the hat or the approved tie won't make a difference in management's attitude, but it might send a message if we all did it. And then maybe I'm just dreaming. …"

It doesn't matter. Jeff and Sully deserve our respect. At Oshkosh, the aviation public offered that respect. In a display of admiration, the two pilots were greeted with applause and accolades. It is obvious that through their practiced funny guy/straight man act, the men have developed a camaraderie.

Jeff Skiles offered his ditching uniform, jacket and shoes to the Young Eagles organization for its fund-raising auction. The highest bidder paid $38,000. The bid was matched by Airbus. Although the amount may reflect a desire for one individual to collect a significant piece of history, it may also indicate that another individual also recognizes that one of the best resources in the cockpit is the person in the right seat, especially on Jan. 15, 2009. I know I do.

Les Abend
Les AbendAuthor
Les Abend is a retired, 34-year veteran of American Airlines, attempting to readjust his passion for flying airplanes in the lower flight levels—without the assistance of a copilot.

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