Sully Says Bird Warnings Won't Help Plane Safety

Minutes before landing in the Hudson, the pilots admired it

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    NEWSLETTERS

    It was a beautiful day in the neighborhood...

    The pilots of US Airways Flight 1549 were admiring the view of the Hudson River less than minute before they struck a flock of Canada geese.

    Only minutes later their plane and all 155 people aboard were in the same river. A cockpit voice recorder transcript released Tuesday shows Captain Chesley Sullenberger remarking to co-pilot Jeffrey Skiles, "Uh, what a view of the Hudson today."

    Skiles responded: "Yeah."

    Less than a minute later Sullenberger says, "birds." Skiles says, "Whoa," and there is the sound of thumping, according to a transcript of the Jan. 15 flight released by the National Transportation Safety Board.

    Warnings about the birds probably would not have helped, Capt. Sullenberger told federal safety officials Tuesday as they looked for ways to prevent a recurrence that could prove deadly.

    Sullenberger, known as the hero pilot from the “Miracle on the Hudson,” was the first witness today as the NTSB began three days of hearings discussing the emergency Hudson River landing of Flight 1549 and the prevention of more bird-plane collisions.

    "In my experience, the warnings we get are general in nature and not specific and therefore have limited usefulness," Sullenberger said during the hearing.

    US Airways Flight 1549 had just taken off from LaGuardia Airport in New York on Jan. 15 and climbed to about 3,000 feet when the Airbus A320 hit a flock of Canada geese and lost thrust in both engines. Capt. Sullenberger ditched the plane into the Hudson rather than risk crashing in the densely populated area. All 155 people aboard survived.

    National Transportation Safety Board member Robert Sumwalt said the accident has made safety officials, the aviation industry and the public more aware of the growing likelihood of bird-plane collisions.
           
    “I flew airplanes for quite a while and I worried about a lot of things, but I never really worried about birds bringing my airplane down,” Sumwalt, a former airline pilot, said in an interview. “Now this has caused a whole new focus on this.”

    In recent decades, many bird populations -- including Canada geese -- have rebounded thanks partly to environmental regulations. Air travel has also soared since deregulation in the late 1970s encouraged greater competition and lower fares.

    With more planes and more birds in the sky, “we have a situation here -- almost a numbers game -- where eventually something is going to happen,” said Michael Begier, national coordinator of the Agriculture Department's airport wildlife hazards program. “We're very fortunate that Flight 1549 was not a catastrophe. It is a warning shot.”

    There have been 98,000 bird strikes on planes since 1980. Bird strikes at LaGuardia Airport have increased from 16 in 1980 to 96 in 2008, according to the New York Daily News.

    The bird strike issue has raised further questions about Mayor Michael Bloomberg's garbage disposal plan in Queens. Residents and politicians are fighting the mayor's plan to create a garbage-to-barge waste transfer station in College Point because they say it will create a new "bird magnet" just 2,000 feet away from a LaGuardia runway, The News reported.

    "I think the city should take another look at this," Queens Rep. Joe Crowley told the paper.

    "That's just insane," said Skiles.

    The Federal Aviation Administration is testing bird-detecting radar that may help airports manage nearby bird populations. Some experts have also suggested aircraft engines should be designed to withstand bigger birds. Newer engines on commercial airliners have to withstand an 8-pound bird, but Canada geese can weigh twice that.
           
    “You could probably build an aircraft engine that could withstand a 20-pound bird with today's technology, but that engine will never fly” because it will be too heavy, Sumwalt said. “We can't do a whole lot more to beef up the aircraft to withstand birds.”
           
    Another concern is whether the FAA and airlines need to revise emergency procedures for a double engine failure. Those procedures for pilots usually involve a checklist of many steps, and there are different checklists depending upon the problem. If the plane is flying at a high altitude -- airliners typically cruise above 20,000 feet -- pilots may have time to identify and correct the problem.
           
    At a low altitude that's more difficult. Skiles has said he only made it part of the way through a checklist for restarting the engines before the forced landing.