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US Airways crash a reminder of why it's good to respect the birds

Friday, January 16, 2009 | 12:30 p.m. CST; updated 7:57 p.m. CST, Saturday, January 17, 2009

US Air on final, Hudson one-eight…

On a sunny summer afternoon almost 40 years ago, I took off from Republic Airport in East Farmingdale on Long Island, N.Y., in a four-seat private airplane. My purpose as pilot-in-command was to sightsee. A friend from Israel and a schoolmate were going to tour New York City by air.

In 1969, it was easy to fly the Hudson River corridor. Fly north to Connecticut; turn west to the Hudson just above Yankee Stadium. Another left and drop to 1,000 feet, fly down the Hudson, over the George Washington Bridge, wave at the workers in the Empire State Building and the World Trade Center. Then over the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge and one more left, down to 500 feet eastward over the ocean and back to Republic.

In 1971 I bumped a duck over the Long Island Sound. Picking up a friend from college, I was about 20 miles from Republic when we collided. The duck bounced off the top of the fuselage and left a rather large dent, a cracked windshield and two very scared aviators at 3,500 feet. We made it to the airport fine, but that experience left me with two things: a great respect for how fast things can go wrong and the power of one duck. Imagine a whole flock of geese.

Usually, you see a flock of birds while flying, sometimes not. But like a rock hurling toward your car windshield, it is sometimes impossible to avoid them. Usually the damage to the airplane is minor, rarely catastrophic.  

Others have landed in the waters around New York. My dad had his plane at Flushing Airport, just two miles east of LaGuardia Airport. We would “follow” the jets in and out, always watching for birds and each other. One of my father’s partners in his Piper Cherokee experienced a catastrophic failure of the propeller and landed in Flushing Bay – upside down. No one was hurt. Boaters came to their rescue immediately. The plane was a total loss.

I know that section of the Hudson where US Airways Flight 1549 ditched. It is about three-quarters of a mile wide and filled with commuter and pleasure boats, cruise liners and commercial traffic. I am certainly not surprised the rescuers arrived so quickly or that the skill of Captain Chesley B. "Sully" Sullenberger III and co-pilot Jeff Skiles saved the lives of the 155 souls on board.

In pilot training, and as a commercial pilot, you prepare for emergencies, including the complete failure of the engines. It is drummed into you that you must always have an emergency landing site in mind, know how far the plane can glide —no, Virginia, airplanes do not fall out of the sky — and know what to do when you land. Landing in water is next to impossible without flipping the aircraft. Sullenberger beat all odds.

I haven’t flown in a while, but I will never forget the lesson: Engine failure, nose down, glide speed, find a place to land and keep your passengers safe. Even if the runway is the Hudson River.

David Rosman is a business and political communications consultant, professional speaker and instructor at Columbia College. He welcomes your comments at ProfDave1011@netscape.net.

 


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