WASHINGTON Capt. Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger was out of options at 3,000 feet (920 meters) on Thursday when he intentionally and calmly steered his crippled US Airways jetliner, fully loaded with passengers, towards the Hudson River.
A former Air Force fighter pilot with 40 years of flying experience -- including gliders -- Sullenberger's Airbus A320 apparently struck a flock of birds moments after takeoff from New York's LaGuardia Airport, knocking out both engines.
The jet is designed to fly with one engine out. But a dual bird strike that kills both powerplants, if confirmed by federal transportation investigators, is virtually unheard of in U.S. aviation.
Flight 1549 was running about 30 minutes late when it lifted off from LaGuardia shortly before 3:30 p.m. EST (8:30 p.m. British time) bound for Charlotte, North Carolina, with 150 passengers and five crew, the FAA said.
Within minutes, word came back to New York controllers from the cockpit that a bird strike had knocked out both of the A320 CMF-56 series engines.
According to details pieced together from air traffic controllers and aviation officials with knowledge of the harrowing moments above New York and New Jersey, it seemed as if the entire incident of several minutes passed in a flash, demanding that Sullenberger employ every bit of his years of experience.
According to controllers, an "eerie calm" defined controller and cockpit communications as options dwindled. Return to LaGuardia? Too far. Land at small Teterboro Airport across the river in New Jersey? The plane wouldn't make that either. An audacious river landing was the only option, an official of the controllers' union told Reuters.
"That was pretty much it," said Doug Church, a spokesman for the National Air Traffic Controllers Association (NATCA). "It was very clear to our controllers that he was going to make an attempt at the Hudson."
Radar showed the nearly 10-year-old jet making a series of tight turns to left to head down the river, flying low over the George Washington Bridge.
As Sullenberger, from Danville, California, set the plane down in the river, it kicked up a tremendous splash.
His co-pilot was not identified. Three flight attendants aboard were credited with safely evacuating the plane and getting passengers into life vests and onto partially submerged wings and rafts, the union representing those workers said.
(Reporting by John Crawley, editing by Philip Barbara)