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Pilot Praised For Role In Miracle Landing

MELISSA BLOCK, Host:

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

MICHELE NORRIS, Host:

And I'm Michele Norris. The plane that made the incredible landing yesterday in the Hudson River is still in the water, but not for long. Investigators have brought in two giant cranes, divers and a barge to pull out the half-submerged jet. As NPR's Robert Smith reports, they want to have a look at the flight data recorder and see what caused the two engines to fail in the skies over New York City.

ROBERT SMITH: After all the people onboard flight 1549 were rescued, the jet liner continued its journey south. The strong current pulled the plane down the Hudson River to lower Manhattan, where tugboats pushed it to shore. Today, a stream of New Yorkers and out-of-towners, like Gregory Shepard(ph), came to gawk.

GREGORY SHEPARD: We see a wing tip sticking out of the Hudson River, which, I guess, is something you don't see every day.

SMITH: It's a new tourist attraction here in New York.

SHEPARD: Yeah, it seems like it. I mean, look at it - there's people everywhere. It's really impressive, and it's a great human interest story, definitely.

SMITH: It's also a mystery. Even though the pilot told air traffic controllers that he hit a flock of birds, the National Transportation Safety Board isn't willing to assume that it was the cause of the accident. Instead, they're beginning the slow process of getting the plane on to dry land and putting it all back together again. Both of the engines are now missing and assumed to be on the bottom of the Hudson some place. Divers have been in the water around the plane, looking for them. This afternoon, NTSB investigators held a briefing and said that the recovery process has been slowed by the strong current and cold temperatures in the Hudson. But there are other reasons the agency is moving carefully. Peter Goelz is the former managing director of the National Transportation Safety Board.

PETER GOELZ: Part of their challenge is the plane was loaded with fuel, so they need to be very careful when they lift it not to spring one of the fuel tanks.

SMITH: Goelz says, after investigators find the engines and the flight recorders, the biggest task will be to check if birds really did disable both engines. And even then, the NTSB has to ask if the flock could have been avoided.

GOELZ: Did they show up on any radar? Was there any warning that could have been issued to the crew, or was there any delay that they could have taken till the birds cleared?

SMITH: Goelz now said, in the crowded air space over New York City, there isn't much room to maneuver. So, there's another question to ask. Jet engines are supposed to be able to take the impact of a small bird.

GOELZ: And in this case, it looks like it was - the engines were tested up to about a four-pound bird.

SMITH: But Canada geese can weigh over 10 pounds. Goelz says the NTSB will eventually have to ask if the standards need to be raised for jet engines. It will be a sensitive investigation, especially after all the media attention on the landing and the celebration of the flight crew as heroes. At City Hall today, Mayor Michael Bloomberg held a ceremony to salute the rescue workers and especially the pilot.

MICHAEL BLOOMBERG: And his brave actions have inspired millions of people in the city and millions more around the world.

SMITH: But Captain Chesley Sullenberger III was not around to hear the praise. The NTSB has forbidden him, and the rest of the crew, from talking to the media while the investigation is ongoing. So, that left Mayor Michael Bloomberg without anyone to present the city's highest honor to.

BLOOMBERG: I have a key to the city right here, and I'm going to hold on to it until we have the opportunity to present it to the incredibly brave pilot, co-pilot and the crew of US Airways flight 1549.

SMITH: The NTSB says they will interview the pilot tomorrow. They also hope to get the plane out of the water on Saturday. But until then, they can't really talk about the theories about why the plane went down. Robert Smith, NPR News New York. 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.

Robert Smith
Robert Smith is a host for NPR's Planet Money where he tells stories about how the global economy is affecting our lives.