Bird Bash

January 16, 2009 by Bruce Landsberg

It was pure coincidence that last week I addressed the issue of bird strikes. US Airways Flight 1549, in all likelihood, proved that enough birds can bring down even the best aeronautical technology of our time. Despite my irreverent title, it should open up at least some discussion on co-existence, if that’s possible. But this isn’t a second bird blog – it’s about the successful forced landing and the key points it illustrates.

Air Safety Foundation just completed a special seminar in North Las Vegas this week regarding safety of flight in urban areas. This was done after two back-to-back fatal accidents last summer. The director of county airports decided an airspace grab would resolve the problem to his satisfaction and we’ll leave that for AOPA to address. Our interest is in how to make landing lemonade out of an urban lemon landing zone.

US Airways Captain Chesley Sullenberger III perfectly demonstrated several key points of the seminar.

  • The “impossible turn” back to the runway probably won’t work – we see this too many times as pilots attempt to return, only to stall out and spin in.
  • Find something soft and cheap to hit – What could be better than the Hudson River? We could’ve asked for a midsummer emergency where survivors merely dissolve over a period of hours rather than freezing in a matter of minutes but this is far better than banging into buildings.
  • “Fly the thing as far into the crash as possible” was the excellent advice of Bob Hoover to dissipate the energy over as long a period of time as possible
  • Touch down in a normal landing attitude – Airplanes are built to dissipate tremendous force if it can be appropriately distributed. My landings are periodic testimony to that fact.
  • Don’t panic – something much easier said than done but highly effective advice
  • Immediate rescue is critical – without the Hudson River’s flotilla of boats and some expert management by both the mariners and the rescue teams, the landing would still have been successful but many of the passenger would have drowned or frozen.

This accident will become a landmark study and a tribute to the crew, the passengers and the emergency response teams. GA can learn a lot from this one even though it might not appear to be applicable to light aircraft. Final thought – well done New York!!!

Bruce Landsberg
Senior Safety Advisor, Air Safety Institute

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  • Brian McNamee

    Very amazing job of salvaging a difficult situation. But, once again, the news talking heads were wonderfully vacuous. Among the remarks I heard several times was “bird strikes aren’t supposed to cause big planes any problems.” The marvel is that the biggest planses have been brought down by bird strikes recently (Dover, DE C-5A crash) and, more importantly, in both these nearly textbook cases NO ONE was seriosly injured. That’s one tremendous testament to the design and production effort to create, build, and maintain safe aircraft! Of course the pilots played the necessarily important crucial role – but their bird was cabable of giving them the chance.


  • Steve Brodie

    Maybe we should go back to using FROZEN chickens to certify turbine engines!

  • Bruce Landsberg

    Frozen chickens work well on windshields too, I’m told. As cold as it was up there, perhaps that was the problem.

  • Brian Lansburgh

    Up to their usual incompetence, the media even featured Dr. Phil’s comments on the Hudson crash. Didn’t know he was an aviation expert. Regarding the crash’s relevance to general aviation, the return to the airport may not be a good idea, but I’ve taught my students for years that such a move might be the best if planned for in advance and prepared for by non-standard departures. Also, please remember that planes in a state of coordination will not spin. Inadvertent spins are usually caused by panicked pilots trying to increase turn rate by mashing inside rudder because they are trained to avoid steep turns close to the ground and don’t realize that by relaxing back pressure they can reduce the “G” force in such a turn. “G” force is the actual culprit causing the stall speed to increase, not the steep turn. Let’s stop teaching that steep turns are always level turns. If we stop training to minimum standards we won’t have nearly as many such accidents. Bruce, thanks for a great forum.

  • CWK

    Based on altitude and airspeed, was there ever any chance of making the runway at TEB? Given how rarely large planes have stayed intact in a ditching, it makes one wonder a little whether there’s a flaw in the traffic routing or somewhere else that this would have been the best option. Of course, sometimes bad luck is just that–double bird strike and total power loss immediately on departure is getting close to bad as it gets. At least it was in daylight on a clear day, and not night IMC with a 100′ ceiling.

  • Leo Robinson

    Back at my old home airport they used a tape recording which sounded very much like a large male bird. The effect was to scare birds away from inside the hangars becuase they pooped all other the aircraft and ground.

    The future may call for some small radio controlled aircraft to fly across runways before departures to scare any birds from the area.

    Although just a thought there are several problems with this possible solution.
    1. The operation of such small aircraft flying around airports would have to be
    very well organised considering the number of departures and arrivals at
    major airports;
    2. Bird strikes will not only occur in the vicinity of the airport even though most
    do occur there.

    Conclusion, bird strikes will continue to happen unless aircraft engines can be redesigned to eliminate the problem all together. In the mean time, keep up the good training and practice in emergency procedures.

    Well done to N.Y.


  • Marc Santacroce

    Can anyone tell me whether the A320 retains flight controls with both engines out? I was under the impression the A320 was 100% fly-by-wire. In any case, fantastic flying. KUDos to the whole crew.



  • Chris OCallaghan

    Captain Sullenberger’s experience as a CFIG may have served him in ways not obvious to pilots who haven’t earned the add-on. Take off emergencies are an integral and important part of pre-solo and recurrent glider training. Because the glider is subject to both a loss of power from the tow vehicle (tow plane/winch) and the integrity of the tow cable, premature termination of the tow, while rare, is more common than the rest of the GA fleet. And without the distraction of restarting an engine, glider pilots can focus entirely on landing the aircraft.

    Some simple rules glider pilots use might be equally valuable to those who earn their silent wings only under duress:

    1. Take the attitude that there’s a 50/50 chance you’ll lose power on take-off and plan accordingly (ie, either you will or you won’t). This shortens the natural period of denial that comes as you recognize the severity of your emergency (“this can’t be happening to me!”). It also forces you to have a plan before you start down the runway.

    2. For each aircraft you fly, you should have a minimum altitude for safe return to the airfield. Below that altitude, only go where you can see. For gliders, this is 200 ft agl in calm conditions. In a 172, you might prefer 600 feet. Wind, turbulence, density altitude, pilot experience, and traffic are all factors to be considered in assigning this altitude before take off. When you reach this altitude, you should note that you now have the option to turn more than 90 degrees if you lose power.

    3. A good pattern into a lousy field is better than a poor pattern back to the airport. Given stall/spin accident statistics, you are much better off dealing with the vagaries of a controlled approach to an off airport landing.

    4. During every departure, go through the mental gymnastics of “what next?” If I lose power now I’ll go there. If now, over there.

    Years ago, during my SEL checkout, my instructor threw me a curve. On take off and unexpectedly he asked, “where will you go if we lose power?” Without hesitation, I said “to the field at two o’clock.” After a few moments, he asked “why that one?” My answer… “It’s long, wide, and free of telephone poles. And its the only field that isn’t completely covered with snow. Even though there are furrows and the ground might be soft, I know what I’m dealing with.” A passing grade on two points. I had a plan, and I was ready to implement it without hesitation.

    Hopefully I (and all of us) have the tools required to match Captain Sullenberger’s performance. I hope we’ll have the opportunity (once the media frenzy ends) to have a conversation with him, pilot to pilot.


  • http://n/a Duke Hayduk

    I noted in a diagram in USA Today that the aircraft gained 100 feet of altitude as it crossed over a bridge–this following the double bird strike. Nowhere in the press, or elsewhere on the internet, so far, have I seen any report on the condition of either or both of the engines following the ingestion of the as-yet unidentified birds. My question is, after only rising to somewhere over 3,000 feet on climbout, then hitting the birds (what were they doing way up there, I wondered?), then starting down, would it be possible for this heavy, streamlined flying machine with its skinny wings, be able to gain any altitude at all unless airspeed was very high? I keep thinking that there must have been some power on. Finally, I recall looking many times at a Pilot’s Manual that was issued to WWII pilots like my Uncle Al in which it showed a ditching maneuver of an A20–positions for crew, etc. prior to the ditch. The tail was way down and the nose high. Is that still the recommended posture, if possible, in a ditching maneuver?

  • Leo Robinson

    Hi D.H,

    It’s amazing and truly possible, you can find some species of birds flying even above 10,000ft. It’s usually common during migration though.

    Also, I would expect that ditching too nose high would cause the tail section to break off. That’s just plain old forces and moments about a pivot. Maybe a commercial pilot could explain more.

    I’ve heard too that the wing section is the strongest part of an aircraft but on the other hand the tail section still has some degree of structural integrity that’s why they store the black boxes there.



  • Bill Bosma

    This is an answer to Marc’s question about the flight controls on the A320. With both engines out, the flight controls will still operate. This is accomplished via a RAT (ram air turbine) that extends into the slipstream after losing normal electrical power (AC buses 1 &2). The RAT will provide emergency electrical power and hydraulic power. You run into trouble with no hydraulics. Although the 320 is fly by wire; hydraulics are still required. Good Question!


  • Jason Burke

    While there are always many lessons to be learned by fellow pilots from these incidents, I think there is some additional opportunity here. I would like to see AOPA or any other aviation group use this incident to highlight the benefits of easy access to general aviation — likely one of the contributing factors to this successful outcome.

    The pilot and co-pilot, while heralded as heroes by the public, will likely defer to their background and training in explaining and justifying their actions (as I suspect most pilots would). There is no doubt that they kept calm and made excellent decisions — and were able to carry them out — when others may have panicked. What would have been the outcome if the captain’s ability to pursue and earn his various certifications and endorsements were hindered by today’s excessive regulations, costs, and access to fuel? If ever there was an example of the benefits of general aviation training, this seems to be at the top of the list.

    Further, it would be just as great if this individual became the inspiration or motivation that others need to get over the hump and get started. Perhaps there is a scholarship somewhere here? Just as freak accidents often shed unfavorable light on GA, against which we must often fight, this incident has the same potential in the other direction. Sure, it was probably sheer luck that no one died, but why not “church it up” a bit and emphasize the value of good, accessible training in saving human lives.

  • William R. Bayne

    I would ask that my name be withheld because I wish to pose a legitimate question that may be considered “disrespectful” to a proclaimed public “hero”:

    The flight path superimposed on aerial photos appears to suggest a return to the airport and other than a straight-in approach was possible. I would hope that a flight simulator investigation would evaluate this possibility and how obvious such choice was (or should have been).

    In commenting on some other comments:

    Duke Haduk-following loss of power the pilot could exchange speed above that of “best glide” for 100′ of altitude at any time.

    CWK-agree, except that such “nose up” attitude as was available at “minimum speed” touchdown in this bird was unlikely sufficient to subject the tail cone to catastrophic stress.

  • Steve Petzold

    Can someone explain why the landing gear should not have been deployed to absorb kinetic energy and induce additional drag priot to impact? Someone told me it was to “trap air” and keep the plane afloat. But the gear displaces air.

    When I flew a retractable Cessna 177RG I thought the ditching procedure called for gear down.

    My apologies in advance if anyone thinks this is a stupid question. I just want to learn.

  • David

    As the rightful celebration of the successful forced landing subsides, some other difficult questions need to be asked. I’m not a jet pilot, but the general nature of the question is this. While commercial jets are on autopilot and autothrottle just after takeoff, it is a critical phase of flight, and there were two pilots, and they were in a speed zone (there are limits near the ground for a reason). Surely a jet going 200 to 250 would see a flock of birds at least 1 mile away, just off center or head-on to their field of forward vision given the differences in their speeds, with a valuable 15 seconds to react by climbing (trading altitude for speed), and if flying slowly and unable to climb steeply, had even more time to see and avoid by maneuvering. At least enough to prevent birds from clogging both engines.

  • Ty Frisby

    Chris OCallaghan’s post was right on the money. In this case the pilot’s WILLINGNESS to turn around instead of glide straight ahead is responsible for the safe outcome.

    Power pilots have a lot to learn from glider pilots when it comes to upwind emergencies.

  • Henry Niese

    “Touchdown in a normal landing attitude—.” Bruce, if Sully had touched down that way, nobody might have survived.
    I was in awe of that fantastic nose-high touchdown, the empennage taking the beating & slowing the plane down enough so it did not break up.
    Sully, if only I could shake your hand!

  • Doug Horton

    Though the pilots did their job spectacularly, I wonder if the flight attendants were alerted to the quickly planned ditching and did pilots or flight attendants alert passengers? Observe in media photos that very few passengers standing on wings are wearing life vests. Were they alerted? Did they have the common sense to look out the window, see water, and grab life vests from under seats? Interesting that nothing as yet published by media comments on this safety observation.

  • Frank Singer

    No question the pilot did everything correct because the results show that he did. My question is “why did he not activate the Ditch Switch”?

  • Mark Sorey

    I concur….the pilot did an excellent job. Having done this myself in of all places, the Hudson River January 2, 2006 when the engine quit in my 1978 Piper Warrior ll, and with a hired instructor to familiarize myself with the Hudson Corridor. The outcome was also favorable for us. We stayed calm and made a “controlled ditch” into the river off of Yonkers, however we spent at least 45-50 minutes in the frigid 38 degree waters. It was appropriate to call the US Air, as well as our mishap a miracle, since given the circumstances they both would have an different outcome had it not been for divine intervention, and superb training by my experienced and thorough instructor. Just two days before, I had only for the first time flown with this instructor to take my BFR, and only later to do an off field landing/emergency engine restart for real! The only thing I would suggest is that I recommend that ALL pilots may want to invest in some type of inexpensive flotation device to keep in your flight bag…..just in case. You never know when you may be flying over water and need it, if even for a short distance over water. Also what you wear is very important, especially during cold weather flying. I was wearing an USAF type MA-1 nylon flight jacket with a reversible orange liner. That came in useful for visibility, as well as the nylon construction helped me trap air into it for buoyancy until the rescue choppers showed up, and the synthetic fill didn’t get waterlogged and cause me to sink. Very grateful! God Bless my fellow aviators, and by all means….STAY CALM, and fly the plane, under ALL curcumstances!

  • Carter M. Ayres

    Dear ASF,

    Thank you for your thoughtful comments and observations. Captain Sullenberger’s elegant airmanship is an example that can inspire each pilot to learn to fly with greater safety in his or her unique environment.

    Your comments about the benefits of learning to fly gliders is quite correct. Just like an instrument rating, I believe that learning to fly gliders can add confidence and precision during an unexpected approach to a forced landing.

    I am now looking into glider instruction so I too many come to understand the powered airplanes I fly better, to fly them more confidently–and perhaps to make them a regular part of my aviation diet.


    Carter M. Ayres

  • Jay Cole

    Swimming on the Hudson,
    To the editor,
    Hind sight is 20/20 and I sure wouldn’t want to second guess Captain Sullys fine, heroic job of ditching his Airbus in the Hudson River. But if ditching in the river without loss of life is all that the flying public expects from aviation professionals, then I would suggest a visit to your local scuba shop to purchase a warm wetsuit and maybe some fire retardant before your next flight, because thanks to animal rights head cases like Arkansas Rep.Sue Madison, who will use any ploy to disarm America, the bird and wildlife population is on the rise. But what if Captain Sullenberger had decided to think for himself that day instead of allowing the system to force him to depart on time? Instead of just doing what is expected of him, what if Captain Sully had said to himself, “I know for a fact that there are millions of birds in the departure corridor this time of year and I know that due to dense traffic, ATC will not allow an unrestricted climb to FL180 or a heading change to avoid birds? That means that my options are gone before I ever takeoff. And I know that birds damage and destroy aircraft everyday around the world. I also know that other captains are departing and the airline expects me to go as well. But better judgment tells me to stay put and refuse to depart.” I’ll tell you what would have happened if Captain Sully had done that. 150 passengers would have warm, dry feet and calm nerves and the chief pilot would have called Captain Sullenberger in and told him that he is paid to fly the airplane rather than thinking for himself. Why? “because that‘s the way we do it and we don’t make money with parked airplanes.” “Besides, all the other captains departed, so what’s wrong with you captain Sully?” America as a nation is in the exact same situation as captain Sully. We know that we are expected to go into debt we can never repay and that it will lead to economic collapse. We know that we are expected to trust the government and the decisions they make for us, because they think they know what is best for us. We also know that we are expected to disarm and that every society which has done so has been slaughtered by its own government. And we know that this system which lies about separation of church and state expects us to be silent about God who created and sustains this nation. But we still call for the before takeoff checklist and advance the auto throttles anyway because that‘s what is expected of us, just like Captain Sully. So America, enjoy your swim in the Hudson, or Potomac, or wherever your travels may take you. And be sure to read the safety briefing card in the seat pouch so you can crawl out the exits and take a cold swim or a bath in Jet A or fire as the case may be. The flight attendant will be around to take your drink orders when we level off.

    Jay Cole

  • Steveh

    Is’nt the pilot ultimately responsible for the saftey of hisor her aircraft? Takeoff is an important time for all crewmembers to have there eyes outside the cockpit. It would of only taken a very minor deviation to at least miss the full brunt of the flock!!

  • Jay Cole

    Actually Steveh, FAR 91.3 is clear that the pilot in command is the final authority and bears sole responsibility for every aspect of the flight. It’s his baby. If something goes wrong and someone gets hurt, then he and he alone is the only one that could ultimately say “No, I won’t go.” Don’t know if you’ve ever flown high density traffic like Chicago or New York, but I can tell you for sure that they will be on your case in a heartbeat if you are off of your assigned heading or altitude ever so slightly. When there are that many birds in the sky, the only solution is a rapid and unrestricted climb to high altitude. Not even Chuck Yeager can see or anticipate birds at 200 plus knots on climb out. The answer is nose up 20 degrees and max climb to high altitude. If ATC won’t let you do it, then you are bird bate. The airspace and arrival/departure procedures are going to have to be re-designed to get and keep aircraft at high altitude if these accidents are to be avoided in the future. It also saves fuel. 6000 feet at 100 miles out on arrival to DC just doesn’t cut it.

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