About US Airways Flight 1549

Ed Note: Boingboing's current guest blogger Steven Johnson is the author of six books, most recently The Invention Of Air: A Story of Science, Faith, Revolution and the Birth Of America, for which he is currently on book tour. He's also the co-founder of the hyperlocal community site outside.in.

Just for the record, yesterday's post will be the last thing I say in public about aviation safety. Thankfully, early reports on the crash of US Airways Flight 1549 this afternoon into the Hudson River suggest that -- amazingly -- no fatalities occurred, thanks to what sound like a set of truly extraordinary snap decisions by the pilots, and a perfect water landing. But clearly I am done tempting fate on this issue.


  1. I thought of your post, when I heard about the crash, I am glad all are safe.

    Maybe you should suggest a prolonged recession so we can get through it all the quicker?

  2. Steven, please don’t be put off by a) aviation nerds and b) the grumblicious.

    I was in a meeting and missed it, but I’m told the tail of 1549 was visible out our office window as it washed down the Hudson estuary and out to sea.

  3. There was the hijacked airliner that crash landed in the ocean many years ago, but I can’t recall there ever being another commercial jet making a water landing, especially one where every person on board survived. It was an amazing feat of airmanship on the part of the flight crew and a great example of the engineering put into modern airliners.

  4. egg + face. Is okay, have some forgiveness. At least now those who said we were due can be wrong as well

  5. I hear a flock of birds brought it down. “I remembered my Charlemagne.” And there were not only no fatalities, there were no serious injuries (I’m told).

    Given the temperature here today, that pretty much means no one went into the water, or at least not for long. You wouldn’t survive 20 minutes in the Hudson today.

  6. That is soooo funny! one of the first things I thought about when I heard the news was your comments yesterday!

  7. Eh? Everything you said yesterday is still valid. Eventually the streak will be broken. Nothing lasts forever, after all. But that day wasn’t today, in part because of all the things you talked about yesterday. And of course, some good luck. But you have to take the good with the bad.

  8. Under insurance liability law is it
    an “Act of God’ when a flock of birds hits an
    aircraft and brings it down?
    Who pays for all this damage and cost of rescue.
    How do you collect from the Geese?

  9. Steven:

    Please write an article about how remarkable it is that no outgoing vice presidents have been gored in the groin by a run-away circus elephant.

    Thank You,


  10. I read that article yesterday and I thought, Hummmm, there will be a crash now!! Thank god no one was hurt but Boingboing is definitely to blame for this!

    Actually can you write something like that article about the economy??? I need a job, write about me not having a good job for many years, and how I will never get one.

  11. Clearly. I used to work for an airline and I always hated it when passengers would get all peeved off when their flights were delayed due to bird strikes. I’ll bet they’re eating their words now. Bird strikes are very dangerous and they happen more than people think. We always had a mechanic thoroughly inspect any plane that had taken a bird strike so that we were sure that it was safe to fly. I don’t think people realize just how much goes into making flights safe. Kudos to everyone involved in handling this accident.

  12. I fear that the power of wonderful things has disturbed the unified field and activated the Infinite Irony Feeback Loop!

    God help us all!

  13. okay. i have to say i’ve been in awe all day of this aviation badassery. AND the pilot checked the plance TWICE for stragglers.

    the pilot deserves all the recognition and tail he gets out of this.

    also, did anyone twitter?

    “plane crashing brb”

  14. @That Evening Sun, not sure it would count as a water landing, but no one 30 or older who grew up in D.C. has forgotten Air Florida Flight 90. It crashed into the Potomac after striking the 14th St. bridge. Onlookers swam into the icy river to rescue passengers, one passenger now has tons of buildings named after him because he died while insisting other passengers be rescued first, and ultimately about 80 people died.

    Steven’s post from yesterday is all the more great because he rightly points out how safe airplanes have become: today’s crash was very similar to the Air Florida crash, yet no one died.

  15. I’d love to chime in to this thread, but I am too busy writing my new post about how great it is that no extinction-level event meteors have struck the earth in a really long time.

    Just for the record, I do not think that my post actually played a role in causing the crash, and as some of you note, the fact that we had a plane well-designed enough to survive a water landing, and a pilot well-trained enough to execute one, is part of the story of why air travel has become so astonishingly safe.

    Now, back to my meteor post…

  16. Arkizzle,

    One of the reasons airplane engines have open fronts is airflow. If the airflow going into the turbine blades is too turbulent, you can create fatigue failures in the turbine blades, which will then send turbine blades through the engine cowling, and the airplane fuselage. You could build a grill that would minimize the turbulent flow, but you still need a certain volume flow rate through the engine, and you need a certain amount of open space going into the engine to get that. So, if you add a grill, the air intake gets larger, and consequently introduces more drag, which in turn hurts your fuel economy and overall performance. Also, most of the time airliners are not at risk for bird strikes; there are very few birds at 30,000 feet. They’re most at risk during take off and landing, so you’d have a continuous performance hit for protection at a relatively brief portion of the flight envelope when you’re already prepared for a meeting with the ground. Interestingly, some Russian fighter jets do have grills for their engine air intakes. They’re a series of flaps mounted on the top of the wings, and when the fighter is operating from a rough field, they’ll open the flaps on the top of the wings, and draw air through them, instead of the normal large air intakes. They weren’t designed with birds in mind. They were more concerned about Foreign Object Damage from small rocks, nuts and bolts scattered over the runway, all of which can do nasty things to the inside of a jet engine. On US aircraft carriers, for example, they routinely do FOB sweeps, where they have crew members walk the length of the flight deck, arm’s reach apart with brooms, clearing off the deck of any and all small debris. However, I understand performance is reduced when they are using the screened intakes.

    All that being said, aircraft engines of all types are tested against bird strikes. There are FAA regulated tests that involve bird cannons (They shoot chickens, I believe). Usually, if an airplane takes a bird to the engine, they still have a second engine that can provide enough power to keep the plane under control to make an emergency landing at an airport, or a crash landing in the water or at an open field. It’s much rarer to have birds take out both/all engines.

  17. MBlitch 23: What I want to know is, did anyone actually use the seat cushion as a flotation device?

    1. It’s January.

    2. Right now, less than a mile from the crash site, it’s 17°F (feels like 4°). It was probably a little warmer when the crash happened, but the wind is a lot worse out on the Hudson (and btw the crash was on the estuary, not the river, so the water was partly salt).

    3. There were no fatalities.

    Conclusion: No one actually fell in the water. (Well, they might have gotten out fast, but it would have had to be in about 20 minutes or less.)

  18. Arkizzle, as big as jet engines are, I think I heard one guy on TV say that grills would likely end up changing the amount of incoming air to an extent that the engine would not operate properly. If it’d be like that regularly, imagine if there were birds splattered all over it. Maybe some kind of blender like fast moving single blade in front. Set it to rotate so that the air is good for the engine. Chop birdy into tiny bits that the engine can handle! Also useful for ornery groundcrew.

  19. In October 1956, Pan Am Flight 943 ditched in the Pacific near a coast guard cutter and all were rescued. I used to know a guy who was a 6-year-old passenger on that plane and I think it left him “touched” for life.

  20. OK, have to partly eat crow. Says in this Yahoo News article that one woman had two broken legs, but no other serious injuries were reported.

    Some people were immersed in the water:

    The crash took place on a 20-degree day, one of the coldest of the season in New York. The water temperature was 36 degrees, Coast Guard Lt. Commander Moore said. He estimates that hypothermia can hit within five to eight minutes at that temperature.
    Paramedics treated at least 78 patients, fire officials said. Coast Guard boats rescued 35 people who were immersed in the frigid water and ferried them to shore. Some of the rescued were shivering and wrapped in white blankets, their feet and legs soaked.

    Read the rest. The pilot was fuckin’ GENIUS, according to the accounts there. And divers had to rescue some people from underwater (not clear whether they were, like, drowning or just trapped inside the plane below the water level). A ferryboat came to the rescue and its passengers started throwing lifejackets to the plane passengers.

    An amazing story. Astounding. Weird tale. Not fantasy or science fiction, though: our own world.

  21. Thanks Scuba! Great answer :)

    So what if they just had moveable take-off/landing grills? Like the concord’s nose?

  22. MBlich and Xopher,

    Yes. Passengers did TAKE seat cushions as flotation devices, others had inflatable life jackets, IN CASE they had to go in the water. That’s why they’re there. However, it appears they didn’t have to USE them. You could survive in the water for a few minutes if you had the life jacket, less so if you don’t. At least, that’s what the documentaries say… : )

    But congrats to the pilot. I guess they train them well in the Air Force!

  23. I’m puzzled by the Yahoo story (linked to by Xopher) which says there was no mayday call. Should be interesting to find out what happened.

    Also, I wonder what they will do about the plane now that’s it has drifted to near Battery Park. Depending on how deep the water is there that could be a serious inconvenience.

  24. if there had been just a little wind, if the chop had been up at all, if the pilot had clenched up…

    There are so many things that have to go completely right that normal flight constitutes a miracle. Does anyone know; what degree of control is fly-by-wire in this particular craft? How much of this miracle was pilot hand and eye and how much was good design? Is this an argument that we should be trusting the computer more than ourselves?

  25. A flock of geese isn’t as bad as a Flock of Seagulls. Extremely styled hair can cause serious turbulence.

    //What do you mean, this isn’t Fark?

  26. According to news reports the plane was hit in both engines by Canadian geese. I would like to know just what were these geese doing in US airspace anyway?! And did our State Department had the good sense to give formal protest to the Canadian ambassador!

  27. Sure Ned, Blame Us.

    Your birds cross our border all the time. Every time I try to shoot em down, I get arrested. I say, it’s all in the public interest, but they don’t care…

  28. “Just for the record, I do not think that my post actually played a role in causing the crash, and as some of you note, the fact that we had a plane well-designed enough to survive a water landing, and a pilot well-trained enough to execute one, is part of the story of why air travel has become so astonishingly safe.”

    This paragraph made my sarcasm detector short-circuit!

  29. Pilot Chelsey B. “Sully” Sullenberger is to be commended for his performance today in saving the lives of ALL of the passengers of Flight 1549. Hell, he should be given a medal. It is a testament to the experience and skill of pilots like him that these people are alive and we are astounded at their ‘luck’. If I was passenger on that plane, Sullenberger would be on my Xmas card list for the rest of my life. Old guys truly rule.

  30. @42 Falcon Seven:

    ” If I was passenger on that plane, Sullenberger would be on my Xmas card list for the rest of my life.”

    Whoa, dude, don’t you think that’s going a little far? All the guy did was save your life. You really think he deserves Christmas cards for the next 3 years?

  31. Takuan, I heard on the TV that this was an A320. If so, then it’s totally FBW. All Airbuses are fly-by-wire.

  32. I saw the tweets in twitter about what happen right after the crashed, something like this “I just arrive home and just saw a plane landed on Hudson river” I thought its just a small plane,
    Its amazing social media done…

  33. On the bright side: no one died in a water landing(which is rare)

    On the down side: you’re not magic because no one died.

  34. You’re off the hook – there was a bird-strike thread running on a newsgroup for the last coupla weeks, so they must’ve jinxed it. I did mention both that one and your post to another office worker when he first told me about the crash landing today, tho – we thought it was pretty spooky.

  35. Fly by wire means that the instruments in the cockpit are connected electronically to the stuff that moves the airplane, as opposed to a direct hydraulic connection. The A320 is a fly-by-wire aircraft. But the automation is at a very low level; it was the skill of the pilot that produced such a graceful (for the circumstances) outcome.

  36. OK, so FBW means the pilot doesn’t have to have physical strength to “pull up” or whatever you call it. Good to know.

  37. A correction and an addition:

    They’re Canada Geese, not Canadian, particularly. Right now there’s more of ’em on the golf courses outside Phoenix, AZ than anywhere else I reckon.

    Don’t look now, but a lot of cars have drive-by-wire controls – accelerator pedals and brake pedals sometimes, so expect steering-by-wire soon.

  38. FBW as I understand means the pilot requests the plane do something, the computer sees to it that all things necessary for this to happen come true.
    Meaning: rather than as many sensory inputs and feedbacks as a human can handle (which is a lot), a central processing unit does millions of calculations and never gets panicky. In gross terms. FBW is trivial in level flight (think cruise control), but a landing on water?

    I repeat; we have witnessed a miracle here. Consider the speed, the mass, the strength of materials and the limits of the human frame. By all rights there should have been at least fifty dead. You don’t need an explosion and fire. Go stand at a third story height and look down. Think you’ll make it? How about if you were 60? Or a four year old? Unscathed?

  39. Everytime I am on an aircraft and they go through the water safety briefing I have wry smile and consider the instructions, with a twist “In the event we plummet into the water at 600 miles an hour, a thin lifejacket is all that stands between you and vapirisation. Enjoy the flight.”

    On another note, my late father worked for an airline and when started there were still a number of World War II pilots flying the early jets.

    To a man they would prefer ditching in the sea over a crash landing- even at an airport. I think that probably was due to fact that wartime pilots feared fire more than crashing.

    A question: Was this landing wheels UP or DOWN? I suspect they were up, which means the cockpit voice recordings will be interesting. With the wheels up, the computers would have been repeating “pull up pull up” to prevent it landing with the wheels up. Or would it?

    All that said, remember Rainman: “QANTAS never crashed” and despite a few revent close calls, that remains true.

    Enjoy your flight.

  40. Me too. The first thing I thought of when I learned of the water landing this afternoon was the article from yesterday. I was like “he jinxed it!” Thank goodness everyone survived.

    I first learned of the incident from a friend who commented in her journal, complaining there was no LiveATC.net feed from LaGuardia. She’s been in pilot school, I’ll have to ask her what she did learn of the behind-the-scenes stuff.

  41. Maybe it was a black swan that flew into the engine?

    Puns aside, Steven was absolutely right with his post yesterday, but it seems Taleb’s law has a way of throwing a wrench into the machinery (sorry) that is inductive reasoning. Hume would be proud.


  42. Tom: The gear was up.

    Arkizzle and Scuba: The F-117 does have engine intake grills (to hide the blades on the compressor’s first stage from radar… before serpentine intakes came along), so it’s not totally unreasonable to imagine a grill protecting the engine. But it does decrease the thrust quite a bit, since the air loses speed and pressure when going over the grill, so it’s basically like putting a throttle valve at the mouth of your jet engine. You’d see a significant drop in speed and range, and a significant increase in your ticket price. And modern jet engines have to be able to survive bird strikes and other nasty conditions like hail (at least in theory). And yes, Scuba, fatigue failures in engine compressors are BAD

  43. ” #12 posted by Mr_Voodoo , January 15, 2009 4:13 PM

    If you could please post about how long it’s been since Mr. Voodoo has gotten laid…”

    +1! Except I was gonna ask you to talk about how long it has been since I found $1 million on the sidewalk. Razzabeth has no problems getting laid.

  44. Is this all a viral for the upcoming start of the new Lost season next Wednesday ? Steve’s comments, the crash…

    (glad everyonw safe though, joking apart)

  45. Steven’s original post described flying as a ‘staggeringly safe’ mode of transportation and the lack of life-threatening injuries yesterday backs that up. To further make the point, the pilot, “Sully” Sullenberger, runs a company that advises corporations on safety and reliability, based on lessons learned from commercial aviation. From its site:


    “Safety Reliability Methods, Inc. (SRM) was created to apply the latest advances in safety and high performance and high reliability processes to organizations in a variety of fields.

    Many of these advances have their genesis in the ultra-safe world of commercial aviation…”

    He also teaches the subject at UC Berkeley. Fascinating and fateful that a man with these qualifications was behind the controls yesterday!

  46. It must feel good to realize just how many people read AND REMEMBERED your post. Isn’t random motion a funny thing….. Would people have remembered it if it happened tomorrow?


    As earlier as 1956 engineers and lawyers filed patents on…



    Protective screen for jet-engine intake…

    Guard for jet engine

    Jet engine intake deflection guard

    Fan case with flexible conical ring

    And, there are many other pages and patents related to bird strike damage prevention.

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