Thursday, January 15, 2009

Airline safety: what a surprise that birds are a problem (or a non-surprise!)

Well, by now, everyone has watch media coverage of the miraculous water landing of a USAir airbus (A320) on the Hudson River this afternoon.

Robin Roberts, an ABC News reporter, actually watched the incident from her balcony in her New York City condo. She was about to call 911 herself, but water taxis were present immediately. Private taxis showed up before the authorities did.

It was “women and children first” (like on the Titanic -- the media and passengers have mentioned this several times already today) with water temperature of 35 F and air temperature of 20 F. But there were only four injuries, all hypothermia. All passengers and crew were safe.

News reports have indicated that bird collisions on takeoff are much more common than the public realizes. There are at least 2000 a year, with up to $600 million in damage, but it is very rare for both or all engines to be damaged. This incident seems to have been an encounter with a V-formation of Canada geese. Birds, after all, are "the dinosaurs". Migratory bird populations seem to be increasing and "The Birds" (a la Alfred Hitchcock) seem to become immune to airport noise and devices set up to divert them. The worst incident ever was in 1960 with an Eastern Airlines flight.

Airline safety expert John Nance praised the pilot’s (the captain was an Air Force Academy graduate) decision to land the “glider” on water rather than try to make it to Teeterboro Airport north of the City, and risk crashing in a populated area.

However, had this been a longer flight (it was headed for Charlotte, NC and had many Bank of America employees) it would have carried more fuel and might have sunk quickly.

The Coast Guard will have to lasso the aircraft to keep it from hitting the Lincoln Tunnel.

I have probably flown 300 times in my life (four trips to Europe). Only once have I had a close call. In late August, 1992, returning from Cincinnati (actually Covington KY) to Washington, the Delta pilot gave a warning and said that we might have to return and to a crash landing. But then ten minutes later he said everything was all right. We landed normally but were rushed off the plane at arrival.

I’ve had very few cancellations, but once a weekend trip to Nova Scotia from New York was postponed because of a wildcat mechanics strike. In later winter 1979, Southwest Airlines took off from Amarillo, TX despite zero visibility fog associated with a stationary front, unusual in that part of the country.

YouTube has a CNN video almost immediately after the crash, with passenger interviews added, link here.

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