New York plane crash, Hudson River plane crash
Barry Thumma/AP
The tail section of the Air Florida plane
that crashed into the Potomac River in

Lessons From ’82 Disaster Aided Hudson River Crash Pilots

January 15, 2010 07:00 AM
by Josh Katz
The deadly 1982 crash of an Air Florida plane into a Washington, D.C., bridge changed the way pilots perform their jobs, and imparted lessons used by the crew of US Airways Flight 1549 when landing in N.Y.’s Hudson river on Jan. 15 of last year.

US Airways Crash Response Differs From That of 1982 Disaster

The emergency water landing by the pilots of the US Airways plane has been hailed as “masterful.” After making a mayday call, they made sure the landing gear was stowed and the air conditioning was turned off—the cabin pressure must match the pressure outside the plane. Furthermore, “In the seconds before impact, a pilot must try to ensure the wings are level—a feat clearly achieved by Captain Sullenberger, says David Learmount, operations and safety editor of Flight International magazine,” according to the BBC.

Perhaps just as important as his landing abilities were Sullenberger’s skills in crisis situations. The Associated Press reports that the commercial aircraft pilot and former fighter pilot is also president of a safety consulting firm called Safety Reliability Methods. He has also investigated aviation accidents for the National Transportation Safety Board. According to AP, “He had been studying the psychology of keeping airline crews functioning even in the face of crisis.”

One of the accidents that Sullenberg surely studied was the fatal Air Florida flight of 1982.

On Jan. 13, 1982, an Air Florida jetliner took off from Washington National Airport under snowy conditions and crashed into the city’s 14th Street bridge soon after ascending into the air. Seventy-eight people died in the disaster, which has essentially changed the way pilots and copilots go about their jobs.

“God, look at that thing,” copilot Roger Alan Pettit told the plane’s captain, Larry Wheaton, during takeoff, referring to either the flight instruments or the throttle position. “That doesn’t seem right, does it?” The pilot chose to ignore Pettit’s concerns and the results were tragic, according to a January 2007 article from The Washington Post.

According to, “By failing to activate the engine anti-ice, the large amounts of snow and ice that were sucked into the engines during reverse thrust use was allowed to remain there, unchallenged.”

The Air Florida crash was not only blamed on the failure to properly de-ice the plane, but on the inability of the pilots to act on the problem.

The deadly crash placed the “cowboy culture” of the aviation industry under the microscope. At the time, pilots “did not need advice, and copilots and other crew members often were afraid to assert themselves,” the Post wrote. But after the crash, the culture began to change as pilots were taught to communicate better with one another and learn a system called Crew Resource Management.

The need for better communication and checklists also spread to hospitals and businesses.

Background: US Airways plane crash-lands in Hudson; all passengers rescued

US Airways Flight 1549 left LaGuardia Airport around 3 p.m. Jan. 15 and was airborne for about six minutes, when the flight crew ran into problems as the the plane approached a flock of geese, reported WNBC’s Tim Minton. Upon hitting the bird, the plane lost both engines, according to report.

“A 4-pound bird exerts more than 6 tons of force if hit by a plane traveling 200 mph—some geese weigh up to 15 pounds,” writes WNBC.

The plane landed in the Hudson River near the USS Intrepid between New Jersey and midtown Manhattan. All on board have been safely rescued, although the passengers and flight crew had to contend with frigid waters. Temperatures in New York were in the high teens to low 20s Fahrenheit.

This was the first water landing in U.S. commercial aviation history.

Flocks of birds were behind two recent US Air Force plane crashes: one in Alaska in 1995, which saw 24 casualites, and one a year later in the Netherlands that killed 34 people.

Two other US Airways flights originating from LaGuardia have crashed. On Sept. 20, 1989, US Airways flight 5050, also bound for Charlotte, went down because of a rudder deflection during takeoff. Two died in the crash.

Less than three years later, US Airways flight 405, bound for Cleveland, crashed due to deicing problems. The plane crashed in Flushing Bay, which is adjacent to LaGuardia Airport. Twenty-seven people died in that crash.

Related Topics: Memorable rescue efforts from ’82

The 1982 Air Florida crash is remembered for its tragedy, but also for its acts of courage. A helicopter pilot and a medic helped pull people out of the water; passerby Lenny Skutnik jumped into the water to help; and one of the passengers, Arland Williams Jr., drowned after trying to aid other victims, according to The Washignton Post. Such efforts saved five lives.

“At President Ronald Reagan’s State of the Union address two weeks later, Skutnik, seated beside Nancy Reagan, was singled out for his courage,” the Post writes, “and a tradition was born of presidents using the occasion to recognize ordinary people who had done extraordinary things.”

Years later, Reagan would also honor the man who perished trying to help his fellow passengers. In a 1993 Commencement address at The Citadel, South Carolina’s military college, Reagan spoke about the bravery of Arland D. Williams, Jr., who graduated from the school in 1957. Williams chose to pass the rescue rope from the helicopter to five other passengers before he drowned in the freezing waters.

Reagan told his audience that in a moment of crisis, “We find ourselves, if you will, plunged without warning into the icy water, where the currents of moral consequence run swift and deep, and where our fellow man and yes, I believe our Maker—are waiting to see whether we will pass the rope.”

Reference: What to do in a water landing

To stay safe in case of a water landing, also known as “ditching,” eHow suggests that passengers first and foremost study the safety instruction card, located in the seat pocket, as well as pay attention to the flight attendants’ safety demonstration at the beginning of the flight. Flyers should learn how to use in-flight life preservers; however, they should never inflate them while still in the plane.

“When an Ethiopian Airlines 767 ditched near the Comoros Islands, the cabin broke apart, filled with water, and several passengers with pre-inflated vests were unable to move freely and escape beneath the rising water,” writes the author of’s “Ask the Pilot” column. “The vests are designed to provide some buoyancy even if punctured, so if you’re unconscious and haven’t yet pulled the cord to discharge the little CO2 cylinder, you’ll still float with your head above the surface.”

Once life preservers are put on, passengers, after unbuckling their seatbelts, should hold onto a fixed part of the plane, like a seat, to keep steady, and move hand over hand to the nearest exit. Once out of the plane, resist the urge to kick immediately and push out of the aircraft, holding on until completely out of the plane. If underwater, follow breath bubbles and exhale slowly while approaching the surface.

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