I Learned About Flying From That: Another Hudson River Ditching

A GA Pilot's Emergency Landing in 2006.

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(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.

We were going down. At a couple of hundred feet I made the decision and said "My controls," at which point Mark put his hands up in the air and took his feet off the rudder pedals. I recall he then sat on his hands, probably to resist any temptation to assist with our upcoming water landing. I looked over at the airspeed indicator to see it pegged at 73 knots. Great job, Mark! I added flaps, one notch at a time, while slowing the airplane.

OK, we were at the next phase of this thrilling day, the imminent water landing. It would be my first, and hopefully my last. I had never discussed the "unlikely event" with any other instructors but had read a few articles on ditching. Keep the wings level, nose slightly up, and touch down just above stall. I also recalled that if the airplane is going too fast (especially a fixed-gear aircraft like our Warrior) it could easily nose over, and too slow wouldn't be good either. I am proud to say it was my best landing ever. Shoulder harnesses tightened, we were probably at about 35 knots indicated, with the stall horn blaring, when we touched down. The airplane skidded about five to 10 feet, some water came up over the nose, and we came to a complete stop. I clearly remember thinking that the landing itself was actually somewhat uneventful, and we were then on to the next task.

"Get out!" Mark shouted. From my right-seat position I climbed onto the wing and scrambled over the cabin roof to the left side for balance, as Mark exited the airplane and stood on the right wing. We were on a 45-degree angle from the barge, and probably 300 feet away. Both of us were shouting and waving our arms to attract somebody from the barge for assistance. Nothing. I imagined the vessel was simply anchored in the center of the river, for whatever reason. Just then, a helicopter approached from the south. Unfortunately, it didn't change its path or speed and kept flying right over us.

Next was probably the scariest moment of my life. It was about a minute after the landing when the nose dropped, the tail went up and the airplane sank. It left Mark and me about 10 feet from each other, treading water, hoping to be rescued. While we did plenty of things right in our quest for survival, not having any flotation devices was probably our biggest mistake.

The inside liner of Mark's coat was bright orange. He took it off, turned it inside out and put it back on for greater visibility. He then got a bit anxious and said he would swim to the barge. I told Mark it wasn't a good idea and that help was on the way. I knew that somebody had responded to the mayday calls. If we had to do it over again, I would have suggested each of us taking a sleeve of the coat. We would then hold on and stretch it for even greater visibility. Instead Mark started swimming. We became separated in the Hudson, which was our second big mistake.

Twenty minutes in the 38-degree water seemed like an eternity. I was no longer looking for (or waving to) helicopters. It was more important to remain conscious and conserve energy. I was doing the back float while spitting water out of my mouth. It occurred to me this could be the end of my life. I started thinking how fortunate I'd been, and that I had accomplished a lot in 42 years. And on the bright side, friends and relatives would be able to say that often-spoken and true cliché: "He died doing what he loved."

Just then I heard the sound of a helicopter. I looked over my right shoulder and saw a blue, unmistakable NYPD helicopter coming toward me. I resumed the back float knowing I would soon be rescued. Similar to the sight of the helicopter, the next image will also be a lifelong memory. Two NYPD scuba divers arrived, one on each side. They poured me into the rescue basket while I was still coherent enough to realize my life was saved. Fortunately, Mark was rescued by a Coast Guard helicopter. We were both taken to Jacobi Medical Center in The Bronx, where we were kept overnight and treated for hypothermia.

I learned a few days later it was Tony Sanseverino (the Liberty Tours helicopter pilot who had communicated with me on CTAF a brief moment before the engine failed) who relayed my mayday call to the NYPD helicopter team at Floyd Bennett Field in Brooklyn. Tony knew them well, having retired from the unit only a couple of months earlier. NYPD scrambled to launch the helicopter and save my life. The crew consisted of pilots Tony Cassillo and Erin Nolan, divers Liam Devine and John Mortimer, and crew members Brendan Galligan and Andy Apas. Including Tony, those are seven names that will remain, forever, on my life debit list. Mark was rescued by Coast Guard helicopter crew members Ben Bradley and Scott Sanborn.

We should have been better prepared. I had flown the Hudson River Corridor more than 20 times, never with any flotation gear. Instructors, fellow club members and other pilots around the airport were all regularly flying the same route, never with a raft or life vests. We all assumed the Hudson River had a lot of traffic, and either a boat or aircraft would spot us quickly to assist. While that was true for US Airways Flight 1549, obviously that was not the case for us just a few miles north. The mayday calls made the difference. And we were lucky enough to have the NYPD and Coast Guard provide quick and effective response.

The airplane was never recovered, and the cause of complete engine failure is therefore still unknown. My cell phone is probably still in the flight bag, inside the airplane and at the bottom of the Hudson River. While Mark had his cell phone in his shirt pocket and actually made a 911 call, we later learned that by the time the communications made it to Floyd Bennett Field, the rescue crew was already halfway to the Hudson River.

Aside from flotation gear, signaling devices would have been good for us to have along: smoke and streamers in the water for a day flight, and a strobe light for day or night. A hand-held radio to grab on the way out the door also would have made a big difference.

We did some things right, but we both know we were lucky to have had such a positive outcome after being so poorly prepared. By far, the biggest factor of our survival was the courage and professionalism of our rescuers. They saved our lives and we are forever grateful.

To see more of Barry Ross' aviation art, go to barryrossart.com.