WASHINGTON — Patrick Harten had a hard time shaking the image of tragedy well after the happy outcome of the Charlotte-bound plane that had been crippled by a flock of birds and disappeared from his radar. For a couple shocking moments, he had been assuming the worst.
Harten had worked about a dozen emergencies over the course of his 10-year career as an air traffic controller, so he knew the plane’s options. He began clearing runways for an emergency landing after hearing the engines were debilitated. What stunned him was to hear Capt. Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger say, "We're gonna be in the Hudson."
"I asked him to repeat himself, even though I heard him just fine," Harten testified Tuesday to the Aviation Subcommittee of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. "I simply could not wrap my mind around those words. People don’t survive landings on the Hudson River. I thought it was his own death sentence.
"I believed at that moment that I would be the last person to talk to anyone on that plane alive."
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Harten publicly told his story for the first time on a witness panel with the flight crew that successfully glided the jet into the New York river and safely evacuated all 155 occupants on Jan. 15 in an incident. that's become known as the "Miracle on the Hudson."
Lawmakers examined what is believed to be the primary culprit in the crash, the incompatibility between birds and plane engines. The remains of Canada geese, which are larger than most birds that typically get in the way of aircraft, were found in both engines.
Federal crash investigators also are looking at the integrity of the aircraft, which buckled underneath in the rear and let in more water than expected from a rupture in the bulkhead. The National Transportation Safety Board is planning a hearing late spring or early summer.
Sullenberger, whose sobering tale of commandeering a plane with no working engines had been recounted in the media over the last month, used much of his microphone time to promote the need for experience. He said folks are being turned off from airline jobs due to economic conditions harming the industry -- Sept. 11, bankruptcies and mergers, loss of pensions and "revolving door management teams who have used airline employees as an ATM."
His co-pilot, First Officer Jeffrey Skiles, said both he and Sullenberger have second jobs when they’re not flying planes for US Airways to pad halved incomes and lost pensions.
The subcommittee chairman, Rep. Jerry Costello, D-Ill., said after the hearing that maintaining a focus on safety as the industry adjusts to challenging economic times would be a priority when Congress considers legislation reauthorizing the Federal Aviation Administration.
"There is no question that the skill, experience and training of this crew saved lives," Costello said.
In a rare display, the committee members applauded Harten and the crew while the Capitol Hill audience gave them a standing ovation at the start of the hearing.
Joining Sullenberger, Skiles and Harten were the flight attendants who helped evacuate the plane, Sheila Dail, Doreen Welsh and Donna Dent.
Harten had reported to work at New York Terminal Radar Approach Control three hours earlier, but had been monitoring departures from LaGuardia Airport for only a few minutes when the US Airways flight took off and encountered the birds. He told Sullenberger about runways open to him at LaGuardia and at a nearby New Jersey airport.
When Harten lost radio contact with the plane and it disappeared from his radar screen, shock set in. He said it "felt like hours" before he learned of the heroic landing.
The elapsed time from the takeoff to the bird strikes was about 1 1/2 minutes. The time from the bird strikes to touchdown in the water was about 3 1/2 minutes.
Harten was relieved from his position a few minutes later, and sent his wife a text message, "Had a crash. Not OK. Can't talk now."
He said the image of tragedy crowded his mind.
"Every time I saw the survivors on television, I imagined grieving widows," he said.
"It has taken over a month for me to be able to see that I did a good job. I was flexible and responsive, I listened to what the pilot said and made sure to give him the tools that he needed. I stayed calm and in control."
At the hearing, Sullenberger turned to the opposite end of the table toward Harten and told him he was grateful to have him in the control tower and was "greatly touched" by his account.
Sullenberger remained modest. When asked what motivated him to walk the length of the sinking plane to make sure everyone had been evacuated before he exited, Sullenberger replied, "I had the time," and added, "I could leave no possibility that anybody might be left behind."
In talk about the industry, the pilot said his pay had been cut 40 percent and his pension was replaced with a government guarantee amounting to "only pennies on the dollar."
"When my company offered pilots who had been laid off the chance to return to work, 60 percent refused," he said.
Sully said the severe nature of the bird strike – a flock filled the windshield -- was probably "a fluke" but believed preventative measures should be considered.
Birds are the primary focus of the investigation. The FAA said that Canada geese were sucked into both engines, but it may never know how many.
Margaret Gilligan, associate administrator for aviation safety for the FAA, said that all existing bird standards were met on the Airbus A320.
"Current evidence points to bird ingestion of multiple Canada geese, weighing on average of 6 to 12 pounds each – far beyond the parameters of the birds for which the engine was designed to handle," Gilligan said. "The engines reacted exactly as intended. After the birds were ingested, they (the engines) remained intact and did not shed any parts that might have damaged the aircraft’s fuselage, and they remained on the wing, allowing the crew to continue the flight."
The engines were certified to be able to ingest a flock of seven birds weighing 1.5 pounds each, without losing more than one-fourth of their power. They also are supposed to be able to ingest a single large bird weighing 4 pounds and be able to shut down safely.
Robert Sumwalt, a member of the NTSB, said that two days before the accident, one engine stalled during flight. A temperature probe was replaced and the engines were tested without problems.
"Investigators have no evidence to indicate that this earlier compressor stall was related to the accident two days later," Sumwalt said.
He said the NTSB would examine damage to the underside of the rear fuselage caused when the cargo compartment pushed up through the floor.
"That was not a predicted model, that it would buckle," he said.
Another area of concern was a rupture in the bulkhead that allowed water to rush into the rear cabin.
Sumwalt said investigators don't believe that air traffic controller's radar detection system was turned down too low to exclude targets such as birds, a concern of one member of Congress. But he said he was unclear if the birds registered on the screen.
"That is something we will be working at to see what potentially could have been detected on the radar," he said.