It was seven years ago when the world witnessed an unusual sight — an airliner floating in the Hudson River in the middle of New York City, its passengers standing on the wings. After the takeoff of US Airways Flight 1549 from LaGuardia Airport, the plane hit a flock of geese, lost power and the aircraft made a forced landing in the river. The incident was investigated, but most of the safety recommendations from the report were not adopted by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), reports the Associated Press (AP).
The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) investigated and came up with 35 recommendations to improve safety for passengers and to reduce the chances of a similar incident’s happening again. Only six of those suggested changes were accepted by the FAA.
The outcome could have been catastrophic if the plane crashed into buildings or the landing resulted in the plane breaking up or flipping over. The wind chill that January day was two degrees and the water was 41 degrees. Anyone in the water could have quickly lost feeling in their arms and legs and drowned. Fortunately, no one died in the accident . . . but five people were seriously injured.
The person in charge of NTSB’s aviation safety division at the time, Tom Haueter, told the AP the FAA was upset that any recommendations were made, because they saw the incident as a success story. Haueter said the NTSB turned up problems showing the incident could happen again, and measures should be taken to improve safety.
Fourteen of the recommendations were rejected by the FAA in advance. One has been withdrawn and the rest are unresolved and not acted upon. Much of the success in keeping people alive and most passengers uninjured was due to the actions of the captain, Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger, but sheer luck also played a large part.
- It was by chance the plane was equipped with rafts, life vests and seat cushions/ flotation devices. Such equipment is required on “extended overwater” routes, which didn’t include Flight 1549’s New York-to-Charlotte flight. The NTSB recommended requiring life vests and flotation cushions on all planes. The FAA has left it up to airlines to comply or not.
- The plane’s descent was faster than the plane is designed to handle for a ditching into water, so the underside was damaged when it hit the water. Two rear rafts were submerged and couldn’t be used. There were two forward rafts designed to hold up to 110 people, but there were 155 on board. Many passengers stood on the main wings as they waited to be rescued while the Airbus A320 slowly sank.
- The NTSB suggested the location of the rafts be changed so that all passengers could use them, because it’s unlikely rear rafts would be available if a plane were to land on the water. The FAA rejected that, stating that the rear rafts couldn’t be used because the plane was damaged as a result of going faster than the manufacturer’s recommendation, not the location of the rafts. The NTSB pointed out pilots may not be able to attain the correct speed in an emergency when both engines are out and the plane is at a low altitude.
- There’s a checklist for pilots to use when restarting in situations where both engines have quit. They are intended for altitudes over 20,000 feet. In this instance, the plane was at less than 3,000 feet and there wasn’t enough time to go through the checklist. Another rejected recommendation was the addition of a checklist for lost power at low altitudes.
The FAA has dual, conflicting responsibilities of encouraging and regulating aviation. It’s not uncommon that, when balancing the need for safety and an industry’s desire for profitability, regulatory agencies lean toward the industry. Both the agency and the industry see what proposed changes would cost them — they don’t see the lives and money they could save in case of future accidents.
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