Ask the pilot

Most bird strikes don't cause damage, but they can be disastrous. Thursday's accident ended well because of good luck and brilliant flying.

Published January 15, 2009 11:45PM (EST)

The US Airways accident in New York City occurred after deadline for this week's column. Something tells me that an article about airport terminals would seem distressingly inappropriate after what happened on Thursday afternoon, so we're shelving the finished piece until next Friday.

From what is known thus far, the US Airways Airbus A320 that crashed in the Hudson River Thursday afternoon encountered a flock of birds shortly after takeoff from La Guardia airport, presumably suffering substantial damage to both of its engines. Because of the plane's low altitude, it was unable to reach a suitable airport for an emergency landing, gliding instead to a splash-down in the river.

Birdstrikes, as they're called, are fairly common and seldom harmful (unless, of course you're talking from the bird's point of view). I've experienced many strikes in the course of my flying career. The damage in each case was a minor dent or superficial crease, if anything at all. Aircraft components are built to tolerate such impacts.

I've seen videos of bird carcasses being fired from a sort of chicken cannon to test the resistance of windshields, intakes and so forth. Occasionally, however, strikes can be serious, or even deadly -- especially when engines are involved.

Modern jet turbofans are powerful and resilient, but they don't take kindly to the ingestion of foreign objects, particularly those slamming into their rotating blades at high rates of speed. The innards of a jet engine are essentially a series of interconnected fans -- compressors and turbines -- spinning at thousands of RPM. Bend or snap one of the many internal blades, disrupting airflow or throwing an assembly off-balance, and the results can be anything from a mild burble to a series of violent stalls to a total power loss. In rare cases, a badly damaged engine can even come apart -- a so-called "uncontained failure."

The larger the bird, obviously, the greater the potential for harm. Most species weigh less than a pound, but imagine a wild turkey, a vulture or, as was reported to be the case Thursday, a goose. Or two. Or imagine a whole flock of them.

Flying at 250 knots -- in the U.S., that's the maximum allowable speed below 10,000 feet -- hitting an average-size Canada goose will subject a plane to an impact force of more than 50,000 pounds.

In 1995, a military jet crashed in Alaska after losing two engines in an encounter with geese. Some colleagues of mine once hit a small flock of guinea fowl on takeoff at Port-au-Prince, Haiti. They diverted their DC-8 to Santo Domingo with two of its four engines surging and overheating.

And so I’m not terribly surprised by what happened. We were due, perhaps.

News coverage, meanwhile, is abuzz over the apparent heroics of the US Airways pilots, and maybe you are wondering how pilots are trained when it comes to putting a plane down in water.

They aren’t, per se. There are procedures in the book, but ditchings, as they’re called, are not regularly rehearsed in simulators. Not only are they exceptionally unlikely, but more critical than the ditching itself is dealing with the emergency that causes it -- multiple engine failures, a fire, or some other unfortunate scenario. As for hitting the water, the gist is to do so slowly and gently, with the nose at more or less the typical landing angle, wings level, and avoiding heavy swells.

The U.S. Airways jet remained in one piece Thursday and everybody on board survived -- indicators of a superb job by the flight crew under extremely urgent conditions. (And to clarify something that the rest of the media is predictably screwing up: there were two pilots in the cockpit -- a captain and a first officer. Both were fully qualified to operate the aircraft in all regimes of flight, and both are responsible for the outcome.) They were able to maintain control and, it seems, hit the water at as slow a speed as possible. Had they hit too hard and broken apart, we'd be looking for bodies.

Luck too played a role: It was daylight, visibility was good and the pilots were able to choose a suitable, albeit hardly ideal location to put the plane down. Darkness, poor weather or just the slightest change of location, and the result could easily have been catastrophic. This was, in a way, both worst-case and best-case scenario.

While not to downplay the seriousness of what happened -- or what could have happened -- I will ask the media to please refrain from spinning this accident into too-big a spectacle. I’m annoyed by the consistent references to "a miracle." By all accounts the pilots did an exemplary job in a very dangerous situation, and the results were quite fortunate, but they did what they  had to do, and what they were trained to do. To hyperdramatize the event is, I think, to cheapen it. "Miracle" is an especially loaded word, and although not everybody means it literally, the pretense of supernatural intervention is tedious and insulting to those whose job it is to investigate airline accidents, and also to the thousands of victims of prior accidents who weren't so lucky. Granted, a jetliner crashing into the Hudson River is going to be, and should be, a major story. But some perspective, please. Nobody was killed.

In a lot of ways, the lack of fatalities and mostly successful outcome should underscore just how safe flying is. Somewhere on the order of 15,000 commercial flights depart every day in this country, and yet two full years have elapsed since our last commercial airline fatality. That's a record. More than seven years since the last large-scale crash. Also a record.

Training, technology and, yes, plain old luck are all to thank, but it's astonishing if you think about it, and quite the irony: In a time when airlines have lost all respect, staggering through years of financial ruin, they have nonetheless maintained an impeccable standard of safety.

And lastly, let this be something of a lesson for those passengers who ignore those pre-takeoff safety briefings, scoffing at the seeming impossibility of a water landing. I know, the briefings are too long, too wordy and too bogged down with legal-ese and minutiae -- but there is good information in there, from the location and operation of the exits to the proper use of flotation devices.

Portions of this article were adapted from an earlier column.

By Patrick Smith

Patrick Smith is an airline pilot.

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