Sully the Saint

Just as we were saying how difficult it is to ditch an airliner successfully in the sea, there has been the widely publicized case of an Airbus suffering a bird strike on taking off from New York’s La Guardia Airport and ditching in the nearby Hudson River with no fatalities. (Shown on back cover)

No commercial airline pilot has been quite as sanctified[i] as 58-year old Captain Chesley B. Sullenberger III (nicknamed Sully) who ditched his Airbus A320 in New York’s Hudson River without a single loss of life, except for some hapless birds. The fact that he seemed so unpretentious made his elevation to sainthood even more palatable. One could not imagine a nicer hero.

While in no way denying that he did a really great job, one might ask to what extent did luck (in that a spot where he could ditch in optimum conditions was at hand) and publicity (in that the action was taking place in mid-town New York with photographers at hand) make it the miracle millions said it was?

Cactus 1549 

“Cactus” is the call sign air traffic controllers use for US Airways. This seems bizarre until one realizes that Cactus was the call sign used by American West Airlines (AWE) with which US Airways recently merged, and which indeed flies to many locations where cacti do grow in the wild. The merged airline also keeps the American West identification code: “AWE”. However, the name “US Airways” was retained for the public, allegedly because it sounded more prestigious, and doing so had the advantage of keeping both parties to the merger happy.

After lifting off from New York’s La Guardia’s[ii] Runway 4 at 3:25 p.m. on January 15, 2009, Cactus 1549 (US Airways Flight 1549) is handed over to “Departure” (control) with clearance to climb to 5,000?ft.

Including the 2 pilots and 3 cabin crew, there are 155 people on board the Airbus 320. It is a beautiful day, but rather cold.

Exchanges with Air Traffic Control

To simplify the following transcriptions of exchanges between the aircraft and air traffic control, we refer to US Airways flights as “Cactus” rather than “AWE”, and use “Departure,” when in fact it is “New York TRACOM[iii] La Guardia Departure.

“Departure” is the controller handling flights from climb out (i.e. after they have taken off) to the time they reach approximately 18,000?ft, and are then handed over to the “ATC Center” (in this case New York Center) covering the upper skies for the whole area.

After two or three routine exchanges between Departure and Cactus 1549, Departure gives instructions to turn left, as a first step on the two-hour flight to Charlottesville, but not so far left that its track would encroach on traffic out of New Jersey (airport).

Departure (3:27:32 p.m.):

Cactus 1549, turn left heading two seven zero.

There is no confirmation from the aircraft. Then, four seconds later, with a slight error in the call sign indicative of the gravity of the situation:

Cactus 1549 (3:27:36 p.m.):

Ah, this is Cactus 1539 (sic) … hit birds, we lost thrust in both engines. We’re turning back toward La Guardia.


Okay. Yea. You need to return to La Guardia … Turn Left, heading of, uh, Two Two Zero.


Two Two Zero.

Departure calls the La Guardia tower, telling them to stop all departures; that the aircraft in trouble is actually Cactus 1549; and that they have lost all engines. The tower (Local Controller) finds this difficult to grasp, perhaps because the simultaneous loss of all engines is almost unheard of.

Departure clarifies:

… Cactus 1549 has lost thrust in both engines.


Got it.

Departure to Cactus 1549:

Cactus 1549, if we can get it to you, do you want to try to land runway 13?

Runway 13, perpendicular to the one from which Sully had just taken off had the advantage that aligning with it would be quicker and involve less turning—in a turn the sink rate increases.


We’re unable. We may end up in the Hudson.


All right Cactus 1549, it’s going to be left traffic to runway 31.




Okay, what do you need to land?


Cactus 1549, Runway 4 is available if you want to make left traffic to Runway 4.


I am not sure if we can make any runway. Oh, what’s over to our right? Anything in New Jersey, maybe Teterboro?

(Departure calls Teterboro[iv] airport and tells them that La Guardia Departure has an “emergency inbound” … and asks if their Runway 1 would be Okay. Approval is given.)


In parallel, there is an exchange at Teterboro between their Area Supervisor and Operations, which includes the supervisor saying:

Yeah, he’s going to land here cause he’s, he’s, he’s falling down right now. He’s comin in, he’s going to land.


Why would he land here by the Lincoln Tunnel? Why didn’t he land at La Guardia or Newark?


Departure to Cactus 1549:

Cactus 1529, turn right two eight zero, you can land Runway 1 at Teterboro.


We can’t do it.


Okay. Which runway would you like at Teterboro?

CACTUS1549 (3:29:28 p.m. & last transmission):

We’re going in the Hudson.


I’m sorry, say again Cactus.

Departure quickly deals with another aircraft before saying:

Cactus, ah, Cactus 1549, radar contact is lost you also got Newark airport off your 2 o’clock and about 7 miles.

Having overheard the earlier exchange, the pilot of Eagle 4718 calls Departure:

Eagle 4718, I don’t know, I think he said he was going in the Hudson.

On the outside chance that it might be useful, Departure transmits info about the runway available at Newark, seven miles away from the Cactus 1549’s presumed position—no longer visible on the radar, possibly due to the high buildings.

[i] Term used by Robert Kolker in the New York Magazine in a long feature entitled My Aircraft  to describe the treatment accorded Captain Chesley B. Sullenberger III (nicknamed Sully) following his feat. The piece also goes into interesting detail as to how, in general, the social and financial standing of pilots has changed from that of gods just below astronauts to that of drivers just above bus drivers.

[ii] Nearer the city center than JFK, and with shorter runways, La Guardia was the logical airport for the two-hour flight to Charlottesville in North Carolina that the Airbus was about to make.

[iii] Aircraft are handled by the “tower” (local controller/LC) at takeoff. Once aloft, they are soon handed over to Terminal Radar Approach Control (TRACOM), which controls flights up to a height of 18,000ft and a range of say 50 miles. Very often TRACOM is called Approach or Departure (control). Here we are talking about “New York TRACOM La Guardia Departure.
When an emergency occurs, it has been found better that the aircraft not be obliged to switch from frequency to frequency, and so in this case Departure (control) remained responsible. Hence, we use the term “Departure” even though it may seem illogical when the aircraft is trying to land.

[iv] Teterboro was actually New York’s first airport, but is now a “relief” airport handling smaller craft including aircraft used by the U.S. Federal Reserve,