x Abu Dhabi, UAE Thursday 20 July 2017

'Miracle on the Hudson'

America awoke to welcome a new hero - a 57-year-old former air force fighter pilot who averted tragedy by easing his crippled passenger jet safely into the Hudson River.

NEW YORK // America awoke to welcome a new hero yesterday - a 57-year-old former air force fighter pilot who averted tragedy amid Manhattan's skyscrapers by easing his crippled passenger jet safely into the Hudson River. In what has been called the "Hudson Miracle", Chesley B "Sully" Sullenberger III, the pilot of US Airways flight 1549, landed then made sure the 154 other people on board got out alive.

The Airbus A320 was only minutes into its route from LaGuardia Airport to Charlotte, North Carolina, on Thursday afternoon when it apparently hit a flock of birds, thought to be geese, and blew both engines. Investigators arrived in New York yesterday to determine the exact cause of the crash. Visibly shaken witnesses said they saw a plane flying at low altitude close to Manhattan's skyline in scenes horribly reminiscent of the September 11 attacks. Others said they thought a disaster movie was being filmed.

Within hours of the near catastrophe, Mr Sullenberger was catapulted to fame, with glowing praise from New York's mayor and governor, and George W Bush, the US president. "The pilot did a masterful job of landing the plane in the river and then making sure that everybody got out," the mayor Michael Bloomberg said. "He walked the plane twice after everybody else was off and tried to verify that there was nobody else on board, and he assures us there was not."

Mr Bloomberg described Capt Sullenberger's actions as "incredibly skilful" and said he personified Ernest Hemingway's description of heroism as "grace under pressure". "I think it's fair to say that Capt Sullenberger displayed that yesterday. His brave actions have inspired millions of people in this city and millions more around the world." The New York governor, David Paterson, gave the near-tragedy its name by referring to a "miracle on the Hudson", while Mr Bush said he and his wife were "inspired by the skill and heroism of the flight crew, as well as the dedication and selflessness of the emergency responders and volunteers".

By yesterday afternoon, more than 20 Facebook sites had been created in honour of an apparent miracle worker, each with hundreds of accolades. "Your actions are hailed all across the globe," Jaco Pitout, a South African, wrote on the wall of Fans of Sully Sullenberger. Several called for the pilot, who has flown with US Airways for 29 years, to be included in incoming president Barack Obama's cabinet.

"During this difficult time in America, you've given us something to really be thankful for - you are a true hero," wrote Debbie Hause of Charlotte, North Carolina. In Mr Sullenberger's neighbourhood in Danville, California, near San Francisco, reporters prowled the streets yesterday, while neighbours' phones rang non-stop after news of his lifesaving landing spread, the San Francisco Chronicle reported.

His wife Lorraine told CNN after the crash: "When he called me, he said, 'There's been an accident'. At first I thought it was something minor, but then he told me the circumstances and my body started shaking, and I rushed to get our daughters out of school." As the story unfolded on TV news, anchors were quick to say that birds, not terrorism, were believed to be the cause of the crash. Susan Obel, who saw the plane flying low over the river, told The New York Times: "When you see a plane somewhere it isn't supposed to be, you get that eerie feeling. I didn't think it was a terrorist but I did worry." Flight 1549 took off at 3.26pm from LaGuardia carrying 150 passengers, two pilots and three flight attendants. Only three minutes into the flight, Mr Sullenberger called air traffic control and reported "a double bird strike" and said he was losing power fast, a member of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association said. "There was just a lot of silence," Fred Baretta, a passenger, told CNN. Jeff Kolodjay, another passenger, told the BBC he saw the left engine explode and immediately smelled petrol. The pilot then told passengers to "brace for a hard impact". "That's when everyone, to be honest, started saying prayers", Mr Kolodjay said. Clearing the George Washington Bridge by just 300 metres, the plane thudded into the Hudson River with a huge splash and bobbed on the frigid water, witnesses said. An armada of vessels including tug boats, river barges and rescue craft were soon at the scene as people emerged from the cabin and on to the wings. Hundreds of New Yorkers braved the cold to watch the rescue operation from the shoreline as water began to flood into the fuselage. At first there was chaos as passengers rushed to escape but then the passengers began to relax and allow women and children to leave the plane before it began to fill with water, Mr Kolodjay said. Emergency services said getting people out of the freezing temperatures was the priority: it was minus-8 degrees in the air and less than 2 degrees in the water. Some passengers had stood on the wings in water up to their waists. Only after twice walking through the central aisle to ensure all passengers and crew had been transferred to rescue boats did Mr Sullenberger leave the jet, officials said. Medical services said yesterday 78 patients had been treated for minor injuries, even though one of them had broken both legs. It was reportedly the first time in 45 years that such a large aircraft had dropped in the water with all passengers surviving, a fact that was attributed to luck and Mr Sullenberger's flying skill. A former pilot of air force F-4 fighter jets in the 1970s, Mr Sullenberger has his own consultancy business, Safety Reliability Methods. The Federal Aviation Administration said that since 2000, at least 486 commercial aircraft have hit birds. Of these, 166 led to emergency landings and 66 resulted in aborted take-offs. In the New York area, Canada geese are a particular problem because of their size. sdevi@thenational.ae rditcham@thenational.ae