WASHINGTON (AP) — The air traffic controller who handled Flight 1549 thought ditching in the Hudson River amounted to a death sentence for all aboard. Now the veteran pilot who pulled off the feat safely says harsh pay cuts are driving experienced pilots from the cockpit.
"People don't survive landings on the Hudson River," 10-year veteran controller Patrick Harten told the House aviation subcommittee Tuesday in his first public description of how he tried to land the jetliner that lost power in both jets when it hit Canada geese after takeoff from New York's LaGuardia Airport.
"I thought it was his own death sentence," Harten said of the moment when US Airways pilot Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger radioed that he was going into the river. Defying the odds, Sullenberger delicately glided the Airbus A320 down in one piece and all 155 people aboard survived the Jan. 15 water landing.
Sullenberger, a 58-year-old who joined a US Airways predecessor in 1980, and his copilot, Jeffrey B. Skiles, told the panel that experienced pilots are quitting because of deep cuts in their pay and benefits.
Skiles said unless federal laws are revised to improve labor-management relations "experienced crews in the cockpit will be a thing of the past." Sullenberger added that without experienced pilots "we will see negative consequences to the flying public."
Harten, the 35-year-old controller, riveted the hearing with his account of the 3.5 minutes during which he spoke with the crippled jetliner after the bird strike at an altitude of 2,750 feet.
When Sullenberger said he couldn't make it either back to LaGuardia or to Teterboro Airport in New Jersey and would ditch in the river that separates New York and New Jersey, Harten testified, "I believed at that moment I was going to be the last person to talk to anyone on that plane alive."
But Sullenberger safely glided the jetliner into the water near ferry boats that picked the passengers off the plane's wings before it sank in icy waters.
Harten, who has spent his entire career at the radar facility in Westbury, N.Y., that handles air traffic within 40 miles of three major airports, struggled vainly to help guide the airliner to a landing strip.
In lightning-quick decisions, Harten communicated with 14 people after the bird strike to divert other airplanes and advise controllers elsewhere to hold aircraft and clear runways for 1549.
First, Harten tried to return the plane to LaGuardia, asking the airport's tower to clear runway 13. But Sullenberger calmly reported: "We're unable."
Then Harten offered another LaGuardia runway. Again, Sullenberger reported, "Unable." He said he might be able to make Teterboro.
But when Harten directed Sullenberger to turn toward Teterboro, the pilot responded: "We can't do it …. We're going to be in the Hudson."
"I asked him to repeat himself even though I heard him just fine," said Harten. "I simply could not wrap my mind around those words."
At that moment, Harten said he lost radio contact with flight and was certain it "had gone down."
"During the emergency itself, I was hyper-focused," Harten said. "I had no choice but to think and act quickly and remain calm. But when it was over it hit me hard."
Harten was replaced at the radarscope after the plane went down. Isolated down the hall, Harten thought the worst had happened. "It felt like hours" before he learned everyone survived.
Afterward, Harten told his wife, "I felt like I had been hit by a bus."
Sullenberger testified that his pay has been cut 40 percent in recent years and his pension has been terminated and replaced with a promise "worth pennies on the dollar" from the federally created Pension Benefit Guaranty Corp. These cuts followed a wave of airline bankruptcies after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks compounded by the current recession, he said.
He said the problems began with deregulation of the industry in the 1970s. Then "the bankruptcies were used by some as a fishing expedition to get what they could not get in normal times," Sullenberger said of the airlines.
The reduced compensation has placed "pilots and their families in an untenable financial situation," Sullenberger said. "I do not know a single professional airline pilot who wants his or her children to follow in their footsteps."
Sullenberger himself has started a consulting business to help make ends meet. Skiles added, "For the last six years, I have worked seven days a week between my two jobs just to maintain a middle class standard of living."
Investigators have found remains of Canada geese in both engines of Flight 1549.
Sullenberger and Skiles said bird strikes are common but this one was exceptional in knocking out both engines. This "was a bigger bird than I've ever hit before," Skiles said.
The bird problem has been growing. Since 1990, the number of Canada geese that live year-round in the country rather than migrating has grown from 1 million to 3.9 million, John E. Ostrom, chairman of the Bird Strike Committee-USA, testified.
Mark Reis, Seattle-Tacoma International Airport managing director, said radar being testing at his airport can detect birds but the ability to process the information quickly enough to help pilots won't come "any time soon."
On the Net:
House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee: http://transportation.house.gov/
Copyright 2009 The Associated Press.