Accident to be Studied for “Years and Years”

Investigators to pour over plane wreckage on Monday

Investigators are taking a closer look at the damage to a battered USAir jetliner that crashed in the Hudson River and a black-box recording that revealed the thumping sound that cut the plane's two engines and a pilot's "Mayday” call.

National Transportation Safety Board investigators planned Monday to pore over the wreckage of the jetliner that was towed to a New Jersey marina, looking at engine damage believed to have been caused by a flock of birds. A search for a left engine and other missing pieces of the plane was suspended for two days because of icy weather.

A senior NTSB official said the probe of a plane that safely landed without killing any of the 155 people aboard may ultimately focus more on what went right than what went wrong.

"This accident and this investigation are going to be studied for years and years and years,” said Robert Benzon, a veteran National Transportation Safety Board investigators. "Why did everything work so well?

"We need to know that so we can apply it to other phases of aviation, other aircraft, perhaps newer aircraft. It's going to be fun.”

NTSB investigators detailed the findings on Sunday of a cockpit voice recording that captured "the sound of thumps and a rapid decrease in engine sounds,” NTSB member Kitty Higgins said.

"The captain makes radio call to ATC (air traffic control) calling Mayday and reports that they hit birds, lost both engines and were returning to LaGuardia” airport, Higgins said.

The pilot, Chesley "Sully” Sullenberger, who had only flown as high as 3,200 feet, then discussed alternate landings at New Jersey airports before deciding to attempt a river landing, she said. Ninety seconds before landing, he told passengers to "brace for impact” and "the captain informs ATC that they will be in the Hudson River,” Higgins said.

The dispatches on the recordings were described as "a very calm, collected exercise,” Benzon said. Said Higgins: "It was very matter of fact.”

Under a heavy snowfall Sunday night, tugboats pulled the barge carrying the Airbus A320 from a seawall a few blocks from the World Trade Center site on a 90-minute trip to the Weeks Marina in Jersey City, N.J.

The barge carrying the aircraft and another carrying a large crane arrived at a loading dock on the marina's outskirts, not far from a site where BMW automobiles are unloaded and stored.

Investigators want to look more closely at the cockpit, the attached engine, and the interior of the cabin, Higgins said. They already have seen significant damage to the tail and to compartments at the bottom of the plane that opened on impact. The engine was severely dented but its fan blades were intact, Benzon said.

Higgins heaped praises on the flight crew, noting they all had 20 or more years experience and were trained to do their jobs.

"Miracles happen because a lot of everyday things happen for years and years and years,” she said. "These people knew what they were supposed to do and they did it and as a result, nobody lost their life.”

Sullenberger had been scheduled to give his first public interview on Monday morning to NBC "Today” show host Matt Lauer, but the appearance was canceled Sunday at the request of the U.S. Airline Pilots Association.

"The Sullenbergers continue to thank their many well-wishers for the incredible outpouring of support,” the family said in a statement.

The mayor of his hometown, Danville, Calif., said the pilot and his family were attending President-elect Barack Obama's inauguration on Tuesday. An Obama aide said Sunday evening the family had been invited, speaking on condition of anonymity because details were still being worked out.

The area where the barge was moored in New York was closed to the public Sunday, but it attracted hundreds of residents and tourists, who snapped pictures of the plane wreckage.

Kelsey Higginbotham, a 20-year-old student at East Tennessee State University, peered at the crippled aircraft Sunday from behind police barricades.

She and a friend had been to Times Square, Central Park and the site of the World Trade Center, where nearly 2,800 people were killed in the Sept. 11 attacks. She said she was struck by the contrast between one disaster in which so many people died and another in which everyone survived.

"It's a miracle,” she said. "I guess New Yorkers can't take any more tragedy.”

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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