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Water landings: 10 years after the miracle on the Hudson

by SFO Barbara McKay BALPA member

Back in 2009 Captain Chesley Sullenberger had to do something that all pilots train for… but none want to do in reality. When a birdstrike took out all the aircraft’s engines, Captain Sullenberger had to land the Airbus A320 on the Hudson River in New York City. 

Remarkably all 155 passengers and crew escaped the water landing alive. 

But how does a pilot attempt such a manoeuvre? 

Although the likelihood of a waterborne landing is remote, all commercial pilots must undergo rigorous training for such an eventuality. Should the need arise we follow procedures and guidelines as best as time will allow. 

Pilots have to undergo thorough training and testing throughout their career. We practice a range of emergencies in the simulator and have emergency procedures and guidelines to deal with a number of different emergencies including water landing.  

Captain Sullenberger, like all pilots will have regularly practiced flying ‘all engines out’ (i.e. glide) approaches in the simulator, something that will have helped him control the situation when his aircraft lost power. Often the training involves preparing for a landing at an airport, but apart from configuring the aircraft in a slightly different way depending on whether you are intending to land on land or water the techniques for flying the aircraft are essentially the same. 

A lot of people do not realise how well large aircraft can glide and how well they handle without their backup systems, even without any engine power.

The initial stages of the procedure are similar in both water and solid ground landings. We make a mayday call and alert the cabin crew and passengers where possible. 

On water we must ensure the undercarriage (wheels) are up to aid a smoother landing and prevent warning sirens as we near the ground. We turn off air conditioning to allow the pressure inside to match that outside. 

It is vital to slow the aircraft down. Flying into the wind where possible helps slow the aircraft. Extending wing flaps also helps. If there is time the pilot will burn as much fuel as possible reducing the weight of the plane so increasing buoyancy when it hits the water. 

As the aircraft descends and gets near to the water the pilot must continue to slow the aircraft down without the wings losing lift or ’stalling’. 

There are various theories as to the best way to settle the aircraft onto the water, but at the end of the day, clear day, calm water, still conditions and a steady hand will be the best combination, as the smoother and more symmetrical it touches down, the better.

In the seconds before impact, a pilot must try to ensure the wings are level and the pilot must then lower the tail end. Ideally, the aircraft would skim along the surface of the water for a while before stopping, after which it would start to sink.

After landing the drills start again and depending on aircraft type, slide rafts and flotation devices are deployed to get people off and away from the airplane as quickly as possible.

The emergency checklists are updated as and when new evidence comes to light and the manufactures pass that on to the airlines to amend the checklists.

Captain Sullenberger proved that thanks to the skill of the crew, a landing on water is survivable. But while we train hard to ensure we are in the best shape to deal with this type of emergency, all pilots are thankful it is not a common occurrence.