A Pilot Describes Difficulty of Water Landing

Emergency water landings for aircraft are extremely rare—and it's even rarer that everything turns out all right for passengers. But this miraculous occurrence took place Thursday afternoon, when a US Airways Airbus A320 landed in the Hudson River soon after taking off from New York's LaGuardia airport. Initial reports indicate that all 155 people on board escaped safely. Situations like these barely come up in flight school; few pilots are ever in a situation where they'll need the skill. NEWSWEEK's Kurt Soller spoke to Captain Rob Schapiro, a pilot with 34 years of experience who regularly flies 747s between the United States and Japan. He explained what it takes to land a plane on water, how an engine failure might have occurred and what passengers can do if they're in a similarly scary situation. Excerpts: (Article continued below...)

NEWSWEEK: What sort of training does a pilot get for landing in the water?
Rob Schapiro: In flight school, nearly all of your simulated training is for abnormal situations of varying degrees. This would be a very extreme one—so extreme that no one really trains for it. There are so many things you can prepare for that is more likely to happen. Certainly, losing motor power happens all the time. But with water landings, whatever you would train for isn't likely to ever happen.

Early speculation is that this aircraft lost both engines. Is that unusual?
It's not that unusual for a plane to lose one of its motors. You can still fly a plane very well like that. The only other occurrence of losing all motors to bird strikes I can think of was in Elmendorf. [A U.S. Air Force] airplane took off [in Alaska in 1995] and flew into a flock of geese. The birds took out 3 or 4 motors.

That's similar to the preliminary theories that a flock of birds brought down this plane.
It's very plausible. This plane was an A320, so it only had two motors. So, it would be bad luck, but if you flew into a flock of geese, then they could stop the motors. It would have to be really big birds, though; small birds will often go into the motor, and all you'll get is a bad smell as it gets cooked.

Ignoring that, what happens to the plane once the motors are stopped?
Well, aircraft fly well all the time with the motors at a very low thrust. Whenever you descend, for example, the plane flies without the motors. You're gliding down. It was similar in this case: because you have pumps delivering hydraulic power and pressure, the controllability wouldn't have been an issue. It's a bit complicated, but this pilot had plenty of control.

So how do you control the plane down to the water?
You're only going one way and that's down. You would just be picking a spot clear of watercraft or anything you can hit, like bridges. From the height that guy was, there's very limited choice. His main interest would have been maintaining a flying speed on the aircraft. He did a very good job; he obviously kept the aircraft under control. Looking at the photos, I'm noticing that the flaps are still down—meaning that, at a low speed, he had a nice, slow, stable approach.

I imagine it's still no easy task to land on the Hudson River.
Water landing is hard and unpredictable. When you hit water at a very high speed, you can break the aircraft up as if you were hitting land. But if you hit it right, the water slows you down quickly. The danger of fire is hugely reduced. If you get it right—like this guy did—the plane floats. A few years ago, there was a Boeing 767 that had been hijacked and was out of fuel. That plane hit the water, lost its tail and just ripped apart. Unfortunately, that's the more likely scenario for a water landing.

Does this give reason for people to be concerned about flying in the future?
Flying is not like taking a bus. It takes things like this to bring that idea home. You're in a very unforgiving environment. That's the risk people take when they fly.

Is there anything passengers can do to stay safe?
If there was chaos, people would been hurt. It looks like they did well, as it could hardly have ended better.