Plane & Pilot
Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Survivable Ditchings

US Airways Flight 1549 is reminiscent of other successful ditchings

ntsbWithout diminishing in any way the heroic actions of the pilots, flight attendants and passengers on US Airways Flight 1549, which was successfully ditched in the Hudson River after a bird strike on January 15, it’s important to note that most ditchings actually have a high survival rate.
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On July 31, 1997, a Piper PA28-181 landed on the Hudson River, near Jersey City, N.J. The pilot had flown from New Jersey’s Teterboro Airport to Lakewood, N.J., where he landed before taxiing for another takeoff. He flew inland over New Jersey, then headed northeast over the Hudson River, about 800 to 900 feet above the water. He proceeded north, which would have allowed him to avoid Newark International Airport while returning to Teterboro. As he reported, “On my return flight to Teterboro Airport, in [the] vicinity of the Statue of Liberty, my engine started fluttering intermittently. Shortly after, [I] lost engine power completely. Immediately, I started emergency procedures. Some hesitant restart occurred with pumping of throttle, all the while controlling the airplane by establishing appropriate glide speed. Notified Teterboro Tower of my intention to ditch…” The pilot was rescued by a person on a Jet Ski.

The 57-year-old private pilot wasn’t instrument-rated and had 498 hours, with 386 in type. He stated that the fuel tanks were full when he visually checked them before departure. He didn’t change the position of the fuel selector during the flight. The plane had operated a little over two hours before the engine quit. After the airplane was recovered, investigators found that the right tank was full of fuel, but the left tank had five gallons of water. The fuel selector was set to the left tank.

On January 2, 2006, a PA28-161 took off from Mount Holly, N.J., destined for Lincoln Park, N.J. A flight instructor and private pilot were onboard. Part of the flight was to be devoted to operating in the VFR corridor that exists over the Hudson River, allowing VFR traffic to transit New York Class B airspace without a clearance. The airplane was in cruise flight at 900 feet, traveling north of the George Washington Bridge. When past Yonkers, N.Y., on the river’s east side, the plane turned around and headed south, at which point the engine sputtered and quit. The instructor took control of the airplane and issued a “Mayday” call. The pilot of a Delta Air Lines flight heard the call and alerted ATC. Attempts to restart the engine were unsuccessful. The instructor ditched the airplane in the river a half mile from the Yonkers Municipal Pier. Both occupants got out before the airplane sank.

Two of the very few ditchings involving U.S. airliners occurred in 1956. Coincidentally, both involved Boeing 377 Stratocruisers, four-engine prop aircraft that had helped bring state-of-the-art luxury to long-distance air travel.

At 8:06 a.m. on April 2, 1956, Northwest Airlines Flight 2 took off for New York City from Seattle-Tacoma Airport in Washington. Onboard were 32 passengers, three cabin crew and the pilot, first officer and flight engineer. The airplane climbed to about 1,200 feet, at which point power was reduced and the flaps were retracted. The airspeed had settled at 145 knots when severe buffeting shook the airplane; it kept wanting to roll to the left. Because the problem started when the flaps were retracted, the captain thought that the plane might be experiencing a split flaps condition, with one side extended and the other retracted. He tried reducing power, but that didn’t help. Tower was advised, and the flight was cleared to return to the airport, but the captain decided against that because of the control difficulties. Instead, he proceeded to McChord Air Force Base in Tacoma. The buffeting and control problems became worse, and the aircraft was losing altitude, so the captain elected to ditch in Puget Sound.


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