NTSB Hudson hearing focuses on water landing training

Washington DC
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Training and aircraft equipment requirements for water landings will be two focuses of the US National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) as it begins its public inquiry into the 15 January US Airways Airbus A320 Hudson River ditching incident.

The NTSB this morning opened a three-day hearing on the incident, which ended with a successful landing in the Hudson River after a bird strike took out both CFM56 engines.

In opening statements, NTSB investigators said they plan to explore FAA air transport category aircraft certification requirements for water landings. They also plan to look at pilot training for water landings, including whether ditching scenarios should be reviewed in simulators.

The captain and first officer of the incident flight, Chesley Sullenberger and Jeffrey Skiles, had never gone over in a simulator a scenario similar to what they encountered on 15 January. The A320 they were flying was equipped for over water (EOW) but this was not actually required for this particular flight, which was heading from New York LaGuardia to Charlotte in North Carolina.

"We had the luxury of having an EOW plane," said Sullenberger, the first witness to be called this morning, told the NTSB. "Many [aircraft] in the domestic fleet do not."

Sullenberger, however, said having an EOW-equipped A320 did not factor in his decision to ditch in the Hudson. Sullenberger had no alternatives as the A320, having lost thrust in both engines, was too far to return to LaGuardia or guide to Teterboro Airport in nearby New Jersey.

"It certainly helped [having an EOW aircraft]. But [ditching] was our only option," Sullenberger says. "It just happened we were very well equipped for it."

Sullenberger, a veteran pilot and one of US Airway's first cockpit resource management instructors, says forced water landings scenarios would be a valuable addition for simulator training. Sullenberger also asked the NTSB to look at water landing equipment requirements as not all the emergency exits were available after his A320 landed in the Hudson.

NTSB vice chairman and chairman of the board of inquiries Robert Sumwalt says that before the hearing he "flew through the accident scenario in the simulator". The former US Airways A320 captain notes: "They had a lot going on in a very short time."

"We must learn from this accident," Sumwalt said, adding the industry can learn from "what went right" but also what to improve for next time.

Sullenberger has already been widely acclaimed for his quick actions that allowed all 150 passengers and five crew members to survive the incident. Sullenberger says he decided to land the aircraft near the Intrepid aircraft carrier because from having visited the sea-air-space museum before he knew there were a lot of ferries in the area. From the ditching training he received, Sullenberger had been told it is best to land close to boats to facilitate rescue efforts.

Sullenberger and Stiles had only a couple of minutes to plan and execute the near flawless landing. "Jeff Stiles and I had to work intuitively in a very close knit fashion without verbalising decisions," Sullenberger explains.

Sumwalt says: "This event turned out differently than a lot of the situations the board has looked at."

He says the NTSB will issue a final report, which typically includes recommendations to the FAA, later at another public meeting.