It was a cold, winter morning in January 2009 when USAirways Flight 1549, crewed by Captain Chesley Sullenberger and First Officer Jeffrey Skiles, departed New York’s LaGuardia airport, struck a flock of geese shortly after departure, and glided without power to a water landing in the Hudson River. The so called “Miracle on the Hudson” flight is a compelling human interest story, recently revived in our memories by the theatrical release of Sully, a feature film featuring Tom Hanks and Aaron Eckhart that examines the event and the subsequent investigation. In our first Mudspike View It / Do It article, we’ll take a look at the film and how we can recreate the flight in our favorite flight simulators.
About View It / Do It: In this recurring feature, we will take a look at films, documentaries, and other programs that dovetail with the sims and games we enjoy playing. Some members might recognize the format from a popular series of articles I wrote for SimHQ titled “Read It / Do It”. We also plan to resurrect the Read It / Do It series with all new content as well.
Last week I had opportunity to grab a date night with my wife to see the recently released Clint Eastwood directed film Sully. The movie was very good, particularly in all its IMAX glory, and I don’t think I’m spoiling anything by letting you know that the airplane ends up ditching in the Hudson. (No! – don’t tell me how Titanic ends!). The nice thing about the movie is that the events of Flight 1549 don’t really need much embellishment or dramatization – the reality of the event itself was movie-esque. We get to see some insight into the passengers and crew prior to, during, and after the flight. Much of the focus of the film is on the emotional toll the incident caused during the immediate aftermath of the “water landing” and the intense media and investigative scrutiny the crew underwent. There might be a bit of dramatization of the NTSB behavior during the investigation to gin up some conflict – enough fictionalization that Captain Sullenberger himself asked the director (Clint Eastwood) to change the names of the NTSB representatives in the film.
My only real bone of contention with the film is the name. Sully. The overwhelming theme of all of Captain Sullenberger’s interviews, books, and comments on the ditching of USAirways flight 1549 is that the outcome was a result of a team effort. The film actually portrays that well, with an unflappable and professional First Officer Skiles performing his duties perfectly, while the well trained cabin crew affects a textbook evacuation. The New York Air Traffic controller is cool, calm, gives multiple options, and coordinates well with both LaGuardia, Teterboro, and other agencies. Ferry boats plying the Hudson River are on scene in just under four minutes to help offload passengers from the floating aircraft. Police, fire, and EMS handled the influx of patients efficiently. And while yes, the ultimate authority and burden of command falls on the Captain of any aircraft, I still think the film should have been titled “1549” or “Miracle On the Hudson” instead of focusing mostly on the actions of the Captain. I’m hoping there will be a sequel titled Skiles where the First Officer battles sharks in the Hudson while a waterspout threatens to overturn the aircraft. The sequel will end as Skiles is hoisted into a helicopter after lassoing a rope around his waist while one hand grips two flight attendants by their hands – played by Scarlett Johansson and Evangeline Lilly (the movie will be rated “R” due to the post rescue celebration scene where Skiles and his rescuees take a hot shower together at the Hilton).
Tom Hanks plays the everyman very well and though not a one-for-one spitting image of Captain Sullenberger, his performance seems to capture the essence of the man. The special effects are good and illicit the appropriately sweaty palm reaction from both pilot and non-pilot patrons alike. The depiction of being thrust nearly instantly onto the world stage is well captured and provides the bulk of the meat of the movie and performances. Overall, this is a great aviation and human interest movie.
While it isn’t normally appropriate to duplicate an aviation accident in our flight sims, Flight 1549 is an exception in that there were only a few injuries, and most notably, no fatalities. The brief flight of USAirways 1549 is a great scenario to evaluate in our sims because so much is known of the flight and there are tons of options to allow us to get fairly close to replicating the situation that Sullenberger and Skiles were confronted with. With a combination of radar tapes, ATC recordings, the cockpit voice recorder, the digital flight data recorder, eyewitness accounts, and crew interviews, there is little that isn’t known about the events of Flight 1549.
From takeoff to splashdown a total of 5 minutes and 8 seconds rolled off the clock. From rotation to birdstrike was 1 minute and 37 seconds. Peak altitude reached was around 3,070′. From the birdstrike to splashdown was a mere 3 minutes and 31 seconds. It is my opinion that the landing in the Hudson was not the daring feat of airmanship that most people are incredulous about, but rather the decision to commit to that course of action that is truly extraordinary. I would guess that the majority of seasoned airline professionals would be able to successfully perform a water landing under similar circumstances, but not all would make the early and difficult decision to abandon saving the aircraft in the face of more attractive, but much more difficult options.
To replicate the flight, you’ll need an Airbus A320, or you could even use the default A321 in FSX. For my two demonstrations, I used the JARDesign A320 Neo for X-Plane and the nice freeware Project Airbus A320. You could go with an even higher fidelity model with some other packages (like the Aerosoft A320), but these are the ones I had to work with. For visuals, you can use default FSX and X-Plane scenery, but I enhanced my X-Plane scenery with Drzewiecki Design’s New York Airports XP and New York City XP packages which work in conjunction within X-Plane. For FSX I used Drzewiecki Design’s free demo New York Airports X and New York City X packages.
Environmental conditions present at the time of the flight:
- winds 290° at 8 knots
- altimeter 30.24″Hg
- visibility 10 miles
- cloud ceiling of 3,700 broken
Load considerations are 150 passengers, 2 crew, and 3 cabin crew for a total of 155 persons on board. 19,000 lbs. of fuel was required for the flight from LaGuardia to Charlotte (includes reserves), with 21,800 lbs. on board at takeoff. Total gross weight was 151,510 lbs. Based on the NTSB report, weight upon ditching was estimated to be 150,000 lbs.
- V1 – 140 knots
- Vr – 145 knots
- V2 – 149 knots
On takeoff, Flight 1549 was cleared on a 360° heading up to an initial altitude of 5,000′, so you’ll want to have that heading and altitude bugged.
After liftoff, Flight 1549 turned left to 360°, reduced to climb power, and commenced the climb to 5,000′. Later investigation of the radar data would actually show that the flock of Canada geese was detected by the approach control radar, but typically these types of targets are filtered out to declutter the controller’s radar screen (known as uncorrelated radar). Even if the raw data radar return of the birds had not been filtered, that information would not have held altitude information, and no warning would be given to pilots since the frequency and ambiguous nature of the callout would just contribute to frequency congestion.
I was surprised to see how closely to the flight profile both the JAR A320 and the Project Airbus A320 held when loaded with the appropriate weights. Flying the departure as a “normal” flight, with reduction from TOGA power to CLIMB or FLEX power resulted in a climb profile and speed that almost exactly matches the NTSB reported data of Flight 1549. If you choose to use the FSX default A321, you will find it over-performs and you will have to significantly reduce power to try to hit the airspeed and altitude profile of the accident aircraft.
According to the NTSB report, the pilots saw the birds, stated “Birds!”, and then the impact was heard and felt as the large geese impacted the wings, and were ingested into both engines. The strike occurred near the mixing bowl of interstates I-985 and I-95 over the Bronx River – an area fairly easy to pick out in both FSX and X-Plane. At this point, at an altitude of 2,818′ and around 218 knots, you’ll need to manually turn off your engine fuel flow controls to simulated the loss of both engines.
The aircraft continued to climb to a peak altitude of around 3,070′ immediately after the birdstrikes, dropping in speed to 185 knots while the crew reacted by turning on the APU, bunting the nose over to maintain airspeed, and pulling out the Quick Reference Handbook (QRH). Confronted with the sudden loss of thrust from both engines, and not knowing the full state of the damage to them, it is unreasonable to expect that the crew should have started an immediate turn back toward LGA. Doing things quickly in aviation is usually secondary to doing things correctly. The quick action to start the APU provided the crew with essential power and APU bleed air to assist in attempted engine restarts, which the crew proceeded to do nearly immediately. As well as the APU, the Ram Air Turbine (RAT) deployed as it should with the loss of both the primary and auxiliary power sources, providing yet another source of electrical power. Finally, the hydraulics were being driven by an electric pump (blue system), allowing for flight controls and other surfaces to be operated. Interestingly, the electric pump cannot power the flaps, only the slats can be positioned using that particular pump. Analysis of the data shows that the plane did land with Flaps 2 (flaps at 15 and slats at 22), which tells us that the residual engine rotation from one of the engines provided enough hydraulic pressure to operate those systems.
Much of the drama of the movie (water landing notwithstanding) centers around the Captain’s decision to head for the Hudson when two other options were at least within the realm of consideration: a return to LaGuardia, or an approach to Teterboro across the river in New Jersey. The decision to turn was delayed (appropriately) by the reality of human factors that included assessing the state of the aircraft, absorbing the indications they were seeing, consulting at least the preliminary steps of the QRH, and making a quick decision on a further course of action. All while talking to ATC and each other.
As the aircraft made the sweeping left turn back toward LaGuardia, the Captain made the assessment that the energy state and feel of the aircraft would not allow for a successful return to the airfield. It seems that the Hudson River was his best worst choice even though he considered both LaGuardia and Teterboro. Interestingly, though he reported that he didn’t really consciously do so, he flew the aircraft very near “green dot” which is a circle on the airspeed indicator that is calculated to give the aircraft the maximum lift to drag ratio (resulting in the best glide speed and range). The A320 can glide up to 2.5 miles per 1,000′ of altitude at an average of 1,600 feet per minute descent rate. Green dot calculated for 1549’s weight of around 150,000 lbs. was 221 knots in the clean configuration. The flight data recorder indicated that the aircraft was flown at around 180-190 knots throughout the approach to the Hudson – not bad for wagging it while working on a dozen other tasks.
The movie implied that there was some adversarial discussion with the NTSB regarding the decision to head for the Hudson, but when all the human factors were considered, and given the favorable outcome, it was clearly the right decision. Simulations run by the NTSB and USAirways during the course of the accident investigation did show that 1549 might have been able to make it back to LGA or TEB if the decision to return had been immediate, ignoring the variable that is human decision-making and problem solving. The NTSB report on the simulation trials is another fascinating read worthy of your time. In the words of Captain Sullenberg, committing to a return to LaGuardia would have been an “irrevocable choice” that, if he were wrong, could have resulted in the loss of all aboard Flight 1549 as well as the possibility of other injuries or fatalities on the ground.
Once the decision was made to land on the Hudson, the aircraft was flown at 180-190 knots until around 200′ when flaps 2 were selected. The aircraft ballooned slightly back up to 360′ before slowing to 130 knots for the remainder of the descent into the Hudson.
X-Plane handles the water landing far better than FSX does, with a gradual (but far too slow) reduction in speed until you are floating. FSX just gives you a crash message with no real chance to experience the floating and drifting down the Hudson.
After splashdown, the cabin crew and pilots evacuated the aircraft through the overwing and forward exits due to the aft exits being partially submerged. The first ferry arrived on scene in under four minutes to start plucking people from the wings and inflated door slide/rafts. Injuries were relatively minor (though listed in the report as serious – ie: bone fractures), with one flight attendant being cut on the leg by a beam that intruded into the cabin from the floor, and three of four passengers being injured when they were thrown forward into the seats in front of them.
One of the most intriguing parts of the film is the examination of the performance of the USAirways flight crews that were tasked with duplicating the Flight 1549 conditions and demonstrating a return to LaGuardia or a landing at Teterboro. The crews were well briefed, well practiced, and anticipating the events, so it is difficult to compare the performance of a primed and ready crew with the massive surprise that the pilots of 1549 were confronted with. Indeed, in X-Plane, I attempted several returns to LGA and it was possible if the turn to LGA was initiated at the exact moment of the birdstrikes, but flying just 15 or 25 seconds further put the aircraft out of range and made a return to LGA a near impossible maneuver.
Though the totality of Flight 1549 lasted just over five minutes, it wasn’t painful to stretch that five minutes into 96 minutes of cinematic experience. Indeed, I could have watched the characters of Sully and Skiles for hours because I enjoyed the portrayal of their interactions. The technical details of the movie were obviously well researched, and you definitely feel that the director allowed for a lot of professional guidance to give an authentic retelling of the story. Flight 1549 was a textbook example of incredible airmanship, decision making, and crew coordination. The movie translates all of those components nicely and additionally lets us peek into how the events affected the flight crews personal lives. It is an extraordinary story, and a fun one to recreate with our PC flight simulators.
Chris “BeachAV8R” Frishmuth