© 2024 Texas Public Radio
Real. Reliable. Texas Public Radio.
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Hudson Splashdown Audio Released


Three minutes - that's about how long Captain Chesley Sullenberger had to land his plane in the Hudson River after hitting a flock of birds above New York City. Today, for the first time we hear the conversation between the pilot and air traffic controllers as they tried to save the flight.

NPR's Robert Smith reports.

ROBERT SMITH: It was 3:27 in the afternoon - an air traffic controller sitting in a room 20 miles from LaGuardia Airport is guiding at least three planes out of New York's airspace including…

Captain CHESLEY SULLENBERGER (Pilot): Cactus 1549-700, climbing 5,000.

SMITH: That's Captain Chesley Sullenberger taking his plane up to 5,000 feet. Throughout the recording, the flight is referred to as Cactus 1549. Cactus is the call sign for U.S. Airways because it's based in Arizona. The controller wants the plane to head west, sending it off to the final destination of Charlotte, when we hear about the birds.

Unidentified Man #1 (Air Traffic Controller): Cactus 1549, turn left heading two, seven, zero.

Capt. SULLENBERGER: This is Cactus 1539, hit birds. We lost thrust in both engines. We're turning back towards LaGuardia.

Unidentified Man #1: Okay, yeah, you need to return to LaGuardia. Turn left heading up two, two, zero.

Capt. SULLENBERGER: Two, two, zero.

SMITH: The only sign that perhaps Captain Sullenberger isn't as calm as he sounds is that he gave the wrong number for his flight, calling it 39 instead of 49. As the tension mounts, they'll make this mistake more often. The departure controller calls the tower at LaGuardia to warn them.

Unidentified Man #1: Tower, stop your departures. We got emergency returning.

Unidentified Man #2 (Air Traffic Controller): Who is this?

Unidentified Man #1: 1529 - he - bird strike, he lost all engine - he lost the thrust in the engines, he's returning immediately.

Unidentified Man #2: Cactus 1529, which engines?

Unidentified Man #1: He lost thrust in both engines, he said.

Unidentified Man #2: Got it.

SMITH: But after only a minute, it's already too late to turn back to LaGuardia. When offered a runway, Captain Sullenberger says just one word.


Unidentified Man #2: Okay, what do you need to land?

SMITH: The plane is now over the Hudson River approaching the George Washington Bridge.

Capt. SULLENBERGER: What's over to our right, anything in New Jersey, maybe Teterboro?

Unidentified Man #2: Okay, yeah, off to your right side is Teterboro Airport.

SMITH: Teterboro is a small airport in New Jersey. In that control tower, there's a question about whether they can handle a plane this heavy.

Unidentified Man #3 (Air Traffic Controller): Yeah, well, he's, he's, he's going to land here because he's, he's, he's falling down right now. He's coming in, he's gonna land.

Unidentified Woman #1: All right, have you rolled the truck?

Unidentified Man #3: I'm calling in all the trucks now.

SMITH: Those are the emergency trucks. But now the plane is too low to make it to New Jersey.

Unidentified Man #2: Cactus 1529, turn right two-eight-zero, you can land runway one at Teterboro.

Capt. SULLENBERGER: We can't do it.

Unidentified Man #2: Okay, which runway would you like at Teterboro?

Capt. SULLENBERGER: We're going to be in the Hudson.

Unidentified Man #2: I'm sorry, say again, Cactus.

SMITH: There was no answer from flight 1549. The plane is off the radar. The regional air traffic controller finally shows a bit of emotion as he gets back to helping the other plane.

Unidentified Man #2: All right, departure, we're stopped on departure, runway four.

SMITH: Back in the tower at LaGuardia, the search for the aircraft has begun.

Unidentified Man #4: Give me the police department and helicopter if you got one on your frequency.

Unidentified Man #5: Say again.

Unidentified Man #4: Give me the police department and helicopter if you got one on your frequency right now.

Unidentified Man #5: We don't have one now, but I will make the call.

Unidentified Man #4: You get anybody. You send them right up to (unintelligible) tower. We had a Cactus airbus go down in the water.

Unidentified Man #5: I got it. Okay.

Unidentified Man #4: Okay.

SMITH: What they don't know is that helicopters along the west side of Manhattan have been watching the whole landing and narrating it on another frequency.

Unidentified Woman #2: Going down in the water.

Unidentified Man #6: It appears that they are - the point they're at right now.

SMITH: If there was any amazement at the landing or the fact that everyone survived, you don't hear it on the recordings. There are other planes to land and the controllers calmly go back to business.

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