News and Music Discovery
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Water Landings Part Of Pilot Training


From NPR News, this is All Things Considered. I'm Melissa Block.


And I'm Michele Norris. Investigators with the National Transportation Safety Board say both engines on the US Airways jet that splashed down on the Hudson River yesterday are missing. The plane was forced to make an emergency landing after reportedly hitting a flock of birds. The NTSB says the plane will be removed from the river tomorrow, and only then can the black box recorder be retrieved. President Bush called pilot Chesley Sullenberger III, and he thanked him for saving the lives of the passengers. Today, Sullenberger's wife, Lorrie, spoke to reporters outside their California home and described her husband this way.


LORRIE SULLENBERGER: He's a pilot's pilot, and he loves the art of the airplane.

BLOCK: The remarkable performance by the flight crew prompted us to call pilot Ben Berman for his reaction. He's a 737 captain and a former NTSB chief of major investigations. And Mr. Berman, let's talk first about the apparent cause of this, the bird strikes in both engines. As a pilot, when you're sitting up there in the cockpit, how often do you see birds flying all around the plane as you're taking off?

BEN BERMAN: Birds are seen almost all the time, and many times, you'll get a warning that there are birds in the vicinity of an airport when you're coming in. I think it's, I would say, more than half of the time the airports are issuing a common warning about birds. Birds are just about everywhere. It varies with the time of year. When they're in their migratory seasons, they're much, much more common, and that's when, actually, a lot of the bird strikes occur.

BLOCK: And what are you told to do when you get those warnings?

BERMAN: Well, there isn't really all that much you can do because you come upon the birds so fast. You really can't maneuver around them, and in many cases, they will duck away or maneuver away from you. What the most useful purpose of the warnings there, if you see a lot of birds that are near the runway before takeoff, you will delay your takeoff until the birds have left or are chased away by airport personnel.

BLOCK: What kind of training do you get about bird strikes as a pilot?

BERMAN: We're trained in how to be aware of bird conditions around, heeding the warnings, trained in what to do if a compressor stall occurs with the engine. There are some things you can do to get the engine producing thrust again if it isn't too badly damaged inside. And we're trained what to do in terms of assessing conditions or in-flight damage if you have had a bird strike.

BLOCK: Yesterday, with this US Airways jet, the pilot lost power in both engines. I wonder, have you put yourself in that cockpit in your mind, thinking about flying over New York City, no power, what do you do?

BERMAN: I think every pilot has put him or herself in the position of the pilot yesterday, who did such a great job to get the airplane down onto the Hudson River. We put ourselves in the position of doing the thing that you have prepared yourself mentally for, but was considered so unlikely that it's not really one of the things that we get trained for in the high-fidelity flight simulators, where we do so much of our airline training now. I imagined the expanse of the Hudson River out to my left and seeing that that's the only flat spot ahead and deciding to put the airplane down there.

BLOCK: You think that would look like a pretty good option at that point.

BERMAN: Ditching's never a good option because it's much more problematic than landing on any flat piece of land. That's a lot better than landing on ground that isn't flat.

BLOCK: You mentioned you don't get trained on flight simulators for something like this.

BERMAN: Yes, it's true. And the main reason is, the flight simulators are programmed based on the data that the manufacturers and the operators have about how the airplane really performs and behaves. So, the simulator is made to behave and perform just like the real airplane. Well, they don't test ditching airplanes, so there's really no experience for most aircraft types on exactly what the airplane will do when it touches the water, and therefore, it's impossible to program a flight simulator for it. I think if we had data to program the simulators for, we might do well to practice ditching and practice multiple engine failures more often.

BLOCK: What are pilots taught to do if they are going to ditch, land the plane in water? What do you do?

BERMAN: Well, there's a set of procedures to follow for ditching just like for most other emergencies on aircraft, and what you would do would depend on how much time you have. You'd go anywhere from closing off all the openings in the fuselage that you can control, mainly related to the pressurization systems, slow down the flow of water into the aircraft; you would notify the cabin attendants to prepare the passengers in the cabin for a ditching, and they have a set of procedures they would then follow. And then you would bring the airplane down to the water probably with the landing gear retracted for a smooth belly with the best flap setting that will give you the best contact with the water, and then touch down just as slowly as you can. The key would be keeping the airplane under control. That's what this captain did yesterday. He brought that airplane down under great control, and it worked out wonderfully well.

BLOCK: Ben Berman, thanks so much for talking with us.

BERMAN: Oh, you're very welcome.

BLOCK: Ben Berman is a 737 captain and also former NTSB chief of major investigations. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.