A320 ditching reignites debate about training pilots for landing on water

Washington DC
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Despite the success of the US Airlines Airbus A320 crew in ditching an aircraft in the Hudson river so skilfully that all passengers and crew escaped, the event has reignited debate about whether airline pilots should be specifically trained for it.

At present, says the UK Civil Aviation Authority, pilots are required to be informed about ditching technique and considerations, and ditching procedures must exist in their aircraft manuals and checklists, but the only pilots trained for landing on water are military specialists. Airline pilots are not required to train, even in simulators, for landing an aircraft on water, confirms the CAA. But the pilots, along with the cabin crew, are required to carry out physical training practice for the post-ditching situation. The latter includes operating aircraft exits, lifejackets and liferafts in water, usually a swimming pool or a special ditching tank.

Meanwhile, National Transportation Safety Board investigators have already begun examining the US Airways A320, recovered more or less intact from the Hudson River near New York's Manhattan. The flightcrew reported a complete power loss about 2min after take-off from New York LaGuardia airport on 15 January, forcing them to land on the water because there was no adequate flat, unobstructed land area within assured gliding distance.

The accident happened in daylight and good visibility just after the A320 had departed LaGuardia carrying 150 passengers and five crew. It was operating Flight 1549 to Charlotte, North Carolina. Take-off was at around 15:26 local time, and about 2min later the aircraft had climbed to its maximum height of about 3,000ft (900m), where the pilot is understood to have reported a bird-strike.

One passenger said the engine on his side emitted flame after a loud banging sound just before the aircraft began to descend. From that height, the crew settled the aircraft into a rate of descent of about 1,000ft/min (5.08m/s), leaving flaps and gear up. Alternative options possibly available at that point included gliding back to LaGuardia, or diverting to Teterboro airport, but they knew that if they attempted either and misjudged it, they would crash-land in a built-up area, risking all those on the aircraft and lives on the ground. Almost instantly the crew turned left toward the Hudson river, and fairly quickly committed to ditching as the best option, and briefed the cabin crew to prepare for it.

Radar data indicates the aircraft was flying at 153kt (283km/h) at 15:31, approximately the time it touched down on the water. The A320 floated for some time before settling deeper in the water, allowing passengers to escape on to the wings and the slide/liferaft at the forward doors, from which they were rescued by a fleet of ferries an other boats.

The A320 (N106US) was a 10-year-old CFM International CFM56-powered aircraft with 24,000 flight hours and more than 15,800 cycles.