In January 2009, US Airways Flight 1549

successfully ditched in the Hudson River adjacent to midtown Manhattan six minutes after takeoff from LaGuardia Airport after being disabled by striking a flock of Canada Geese during its initial climb out. The incident became known as the "Miracle On The Hudson". Wikipedia

The Wikipedia page goes onto explain the crew were awarded citations that read:

The reactions of all members of the crew, the split second decision making and the handling of this emergency and evacuation was 'text book' and an example to us all. This emergency ditching and evacuation, with the loss of no lives, is a heroic and unique aviation achievement.

and that

It has been described as "the most successful ditching in aviation history."

There is no doubt that it was a very successful result for a dangerous and terrifying situation. It seems that the crew did follow their training well under trying conditions (possibly with a couple of minor and inconsequential deviations - e.g. an incorrect call-sign and not operating the "ditch switch".)

My interest is in the accolades for heroism granted to the crew and, particularly, to Captain Sullenberger. Their actions were described as heroic by a number of politicians and pundits, including the last two US Presidents.

I don't know enough about being a pilot to know if these accolades are because the crew did an exceptional job, or if they "merely" did their job. It seems that the safety equipment plus the "text book" actions were appropriate in this case to save lives. Given the same situation, I wonder how many other pilots would have achieved a similar result or better.

Are there studies of how flight crews react in emergency situations? Do they successfully follow their training and make appropriate decisions that maximise their chances of survival? Do they tend to panic and make mistakes? Are there any meaningful figures on this subject?

Note: I am not saying the crew did a bad job. I am asking if other crews, put in the same terrible situation, wouldn't typically have the same result. Should I be hailing Captain Sullenberger as an exceptional hero, or sharing the accolades with all pilots who are trained and capable of dealing with emergencies I could never imagine having to face?

Related Question: Since this question was asked, Aviation.SE was created, and now has a similar question.

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    1) Regarding Cactus 1549, they did what they trained to do, plus they were very lucky - had they lost power a few hundred feet lower, they would not have had sufficient glide range. I'm just a student pilot, but I was able to re-create what they did in MS Flight simulator (on 3rd try). 2) Pilots don't always do what they're trained to do - specifically pushing the nose down in stall recovery. Witness Colgan air in Buffalo, and the Air France disaster. 3) The press can't get through a day without saying "hero" or "miracle". Jul 18, 2011 at 1:12
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    Re: 1) That would make an interesting experiment. Captain Sullenberger re-running the situation in a simulator with same cockpit conditions (but perhaps some other random changes) in a simulator 100 times, compared to 100 other pilots. If he only manages it once or twice, he was lucky. If they all manage it consistently, hooray for pilots. If he manages it, but most others don't, hooray for Capt Sullenberger. (Doesn't factor real-world stress, and I would hate to trigger any PTSD issues.)
    – Oddthinking
    Jul 18, 2011 at 2:26
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    Re: 2) Right! That gets to the meat of the question. Do we have more than an anecdote though? Re: 3) Yes, and calling it a "miracle" strikes me as a slap in the face of all the people who worked to make the plane as safe as it was in an extreme situation.
    – Oddthinking
    Jul 18, 2011 at 2:30
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    Aside: In Australian slang, "cactus" as an adjective refers to something being broken beyond repair, or even dead. "Yeah, the radiator is cactus, mate." Having a call-sign of "Cactus 1549" wouldn't be a good start!
    – Oddthinking
    Jul 18, 2011 at 2:35
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    The NTSB report for flight 1549 is here.
    – ChrisW
    Jul 19, 2011 at 12:00

3 Answers 3


In Ditching Myths Torpedoed! you can find analysis of 179 ditches from NTSB Records, years 1985-1990 and 1994-1996:

Myth 1: Most Ditchings Aren't Survivable

If you believe this, you've been led seriously astray. Of the 179 ditchings we reviewed, only 22, or 12 percent, resulted in fatalities. Although survival rates vary by time of year and water-body type, the overall general aviation ditching survival rate is 88 percent.

Note: it is not clear what aircraft types were involved in this report. Given how rarely airliner ditches happen, most likely no airliner ditch was recorded during that period. Still, while vast majority of the ditches concerns small (single engine) airplanes, the analysis specifically mentions "15 percent are multi-engine airplanes". Another list can be found at Wikipedia (and in the Ask the Pilot article linked below), which, while not guaranteed to be complete and unbiased, at least shows there happened multiple airliner ditches before, some of them with no fatalities at all.

On 21 August 1963, an Aeroflot Tupolev Tu-124 ditched into the Neva River in Leningrad after running out of fuel. The survival rate was 100%.

In October 1956, Pan Am Flight 6 (a Boeing 377) ditched northeast of Hawaii, after losing two of its four engines. The survival rate was 100%.

On 16 January 2002, Garuda Indonesia Flight 421 (a Boeing 737) successfully ditched into the Bengawan Solo River near Yogyakarta, Java Island after experiencing a twin engine flameout during heavy precipitation and hail. The survival rate was 98%.

In the light of such facts this particular ditch does not seem to be that exceptional, unless there are some other factors which would show the conditions were worse compared to other ditches.

I think what the crew done was heroic, but pilots are expected to be able to do heroic things, this is why they get such high social status (reputation, paycheck).

Media are prone to exaggerating events like this. Furthermore, sometimes media write extraordinary things (often said by "experts"), like the Help! There's nobody in the cockpit Economist article:

no large airliner has ever made an emergency landing on water

This was later referenced by Patrick Smith in Ask the pilot Salon.com column:

For the record, US Airways 1549 was one of only a handful of intentional "water landings" involving a commercial airliner in the modern era.

Both this and another article from "Ask the Pilot", make very interesting reading, it is very insightful. I will only quote a few related parts about media coverage from it:

And if we're going to praise men like Sullenberger, who indeed saved the day, what about others who did the same? There are many out there. Chances are you've never heard of them, mostly because their planes didn't come splashing down alongside the world's media capital.

This is not, for a second, to suggest that Sullenberger and Skiles don't deserve the highest praise. The flight attendants as well, by all accounts, reacted admirably. A multiple engine failure and subsequent crash landing is a dire emergency even in the most ideal of conditions. I am not slighting the crew. I am slighting the media for sensationalizing and distorting the truth.

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    Suma, there's a major difference between ditching a GA aircraft and a major airliner like an A320. Not only are the speeds lower, but there's fewer people to extract from the wreckage. I've heard of only a very few (semi)controlled ditchings (rather than crashes into water), in all there were fatalities, sometimes major (and in at least one case, 100%). The most famous of course is the hijacked Ethiopian Airlines Boeing that was ditched near a beach when running out of fuel and which, despite a good effort, broke up and sank quickly, causing major loss of life.
    – jwenting
    Jul 19, 2011 at 7:02
  • 1) I was unable to find what types of airplanes were involved in the NTSB, but there is nothing explicitly saying airlines are not involved 2) the only other list in Wikipedia I have found shows approximatelly same rate 3) the Ask the pilot articles linked to confirm the same. If you have some other statistics regarding airlines, feel free to show it
    – Suma
    Jul 19, 2011 at 7:22
  • Regarding extracting to wreckage: as I have read the sources, it seems in case of sucessful ditch there is often no need for extraction, most of the people leaves the aircraft on their own. What can be said at least is that the sentences like "the most successful ditching in aviation history" are exaggerated, as there were multiple other airliner ditches where all people involved survived.
    – Suma
    Jul 19, 2011 at 7:25
  • The Ethiopian Boeing you have mentioned was is much more adverse conditions: "Unable to operate flaps", "The panicking hijackers were fighting the pilots for the control of the plane at the time of the impact, which caused the plane to roll just before hitting the water, and the subsequent wingtip hitting the water and breakup are a result of this struggle in the cockpit."
    – Suma
    Jul 19, 2011 at 7:29
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    @jwenting There's downsides to ditching GA vs airliner too. Many GA do not have retractable gear, which greatly increases the chance of flipping over when ditching. Flipping is not a good thing for survival. Also, many GA airplanes are high wing. They tend to sink quickly to the wing level before stabilizing. In a high wing, you're going to have a harder time getting out, swimming under the wing, etc. Jul 19, 2011 at 12:31

Okay, I will answer this as a pilot, since that is an area of expertise for me.

First of all, how people react under serious stress has been recorded, and it varies with the individual. You can train people, however, when "The Real Thing" happens, there is always the element of unknown reactions. Although, the goal of all the repetitive emergency procedures training and exposure to situations in a simulator, is meant to reduce the likelihood of someone freezing up or reacting incorrectly.

As to, did they "merely" do their job question. I have always said that having a boring flying career is the most preferable state of events. The best pilots use their knowledge and judgment so that they don't have to use their skill. It is indeed a very ingrained part of pilot training to handle these emergencies. The amount of training is reflected in the significant investment it takes to become an ATP pilot, as well as the experience one needs to show in order to become a captain on one of the "majors". Most people have no idea how tightly regulated and trained pilots are, hence they may attribute some aspects of job performance to superior heroism, when in most cases it is training.

Keep in mind, unlike most career fields out there, pilots are annually subjected to the following:

  • Practical Flying Exam
  • Flying Rules Written Exam
  • Aircraft Systems Written exam
  • Weather written exam
  • Emergency Procedures exam
  • Aviation knowledge oral exam
  • Full Class I Physical

And then, depending on the airline, or aviation field, they could also get psychological exams, additional testing, and of course, continuing education such as Crew Resource Management training, additional upgrade training and type ratings, etc. Being a pilot is unlike any other career field that I am aware of.

So, that's probably why you see such humility from pilots. They feel like they really are only doing their jobs, but the average citizen has no idea what they have done to become a pilot, so anything they do seems heroic. Although, that still doesn't change the fact that this was indeed a very special event pulled off by the crew (although not totally unique as Suma points out in his answer).

So, let's address each of your bolded questions now that I have given you an extensive pre-amble:

Are there studies of how flight crews react in emergency situations?

Every single accident is tracked by the NTSB. Part of the charter of the NTSB, FAA, and nearly any worthwhile flying organization is to use those accidents as lessons learned. In USAF pilot training, we have a book called "Road to Wings" which the students affectionately call the "Bloody Road to Wings" because it is a summation of all pilot training accidents, and what was learned from them. These lessons learned are also taken into classes such as crew resource management (which by the way is also finding it's way into the medical field because the principles are so successful).

Do they successfully follow their training and make appropriate decisions that maximize their chances of survival?

Not really sure exactly what you are asking here. All I can say is emphatically YES! That's the whole purpose of the training they receive. One can also argue that the reason that airline captains are paid so much (aside from the extreme training, and awesome responsibility, but you also want the guy to have something to live for when things go wrong (although I personally find that a poor argument)). Keep in mind, there is a history that got us to the point of having these checklists (like I mentioned, the Bloody Road to Wings). There is a manual that the USAF has for each aircraft that we call the Dash One. In it are things called Notes, Cautions, and Warnings. Each and every note, caution, and warning is written in someone's blood. Same way with checklists (and again, as I mentioned earlier, checklists are finding their way into medicine and other consequence driven fields).

Do they tend to panic and make mistakes?

Again, that's the purpose of the training. Keep in mind, things don't happen that often. Most of the time, when something does happen, it doesn't even make the news because very few people even know something is happening (for instance, a hydraulic failure, or something like that, is generally never broadcast to the passengers unless it's incredibly severe, and they need to prepare the passengers). Overall, when we DO have accidents, it is a result of an error that led the crew into an unrecoverable situation (what we call the "error chain"). The dual flame out bird strike is not really one of those type of events (like flying into icing conditions with anti-ice off like happened near Buffalo, NY). At that point, the pilot hasn't been part of a series of mistakes that are building up, and thus can hopefully let all that training and preparation take over.

Are there any meaningful figures on this subject?

I know that the USAF keeps a lot of figures and statistics from all aircraft investigations. They also have a very formalized flight safety program that has publications, courses, and officers in each and every flight squadron whose job it is to promote the training that will let pilots do their jobs when the feces impacts the rotating air oscillator.

Sorry, was sort of free flow typing there. let me see if I can bring some other sources into the discussion.

  • 1
    Larian, I am glad to get some input from you. I am seeing lots of evidence/argument that there is a lot of training and a lot of scrutiny. I understand the purpose of the training, including avoiding panic, but I don't know if it is actually effective in real world situations. If so, after flight 1549, we should slap all pilots (and pilot trainers) on the back and say "Man, you guys are good!". If not, we should slap Captain Sullenberger on the back and say "Man, you are good."
    – Oddthinking
    Jul 18, 2011 at 2:20
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    Oh, and I LOLed at the argument that pilots need good pay to have something to live for. Made me wonder what other services the airlines would procure to ensure pilots wanted to come home. Perhaps all pilots be required to read mystery novels to the second last page just before each flight? In general, if my pilot's only reason for living is their next pay cheque, I am happy to be bumped to the next flight!
    – Oddthinking
    Jul 18, 2011 at 2:28
  • @Oddthinking, I think all pilots and trainers deserve the thanks. The general consensus from all studies about training and reactions in emergency situations is that it helps (as evidenced by pilots, fire fighters, police, soldiers, etc). Although Sully deserves an extra pat on the back, because he applied it. Jul 18, 2011 at 10:14
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    @ChrisW, an interesting story. However, recognising the failure, pulling out the appropriate checklist and working through it systematically is (presumably) exactly what they are trained to do, so I count this as a yes under "remember and follow instructions". I have often wished my software development colleagures (and myself!) could do this (recognise that we have a situation covered by a carefully prepared procedure, open it up and follow it) under far less stressful circumstances.
    – Oddthinking
    Jul 19, 2011 at 2:34
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    @OT if they'd not had the training, they'd not have survived. Period. Of course the only way to conclusively prove that is to take an otherwise similarly skilled crew without the training and put them through exactly the same real scenario (not a simulator, though in simulator environments it is shown as well) and see if they make it through. Then repeat with both trained and untrained crews a few hundred times to provide a large enough sample. I doubt you or anyone else would be willing to risk the thousands of dead people and billions of destroyed hardware that would result.
    – jwenting
    Jul 19, 2011 at 6:54

Are there studies of how flight crews react in emergency situations?

Yes, Every air accident or near miss is investigated in details by the appropriate authority. Such an investigation always includes an analysis of the crew actions and their correctness. Here are a number of sites with exhaustive lists of such analyses:

Google will find any others you are looking for. You might like to read a few to get a feel for how

Are there any meaningful figures on this subject?

Not as far as I can tell. This table is closely related in that it gives pilot error-induced accidents as a proportion of all accidents. I'm going to guess that the "pilot error (weather related)" and "pilot error (mechanical related)" might be cases where pilots reacted wrongly to a bad but not necessarily fatal situation.

Are there some examples?

Even a fairly brief reading of these accidents will reveal cases where the aircrew did not follow their proper training even under normal circumstances - they show up in the accident reports because their actions caused an accident.

Is the question a useful one?

From your tone you seem to be asking whether Cpt Sully and his crew deserve to be called heroes, or if they just did their job. Why are the two contradictory? If we think about firefighters, police, soldiers, coastguard rescue, they are trained exactly to respond to extreme situations, and it's what we expect of them; that shouldn't stop us from calling them heroes when they do it. Nobody should be dragged from a burning building and say to the firefighter who did it:"Hey, you were just doing your job". Civilian aircrew aren't quite in the same category - most pilots never go through a situation half as extreme as this for real. But if they correctly respond to an emergency as they were trained, under extreme pressure and when every human instinct is to cover your eyes and scream, they deserve all the hero-credit they can get.

  • 2
    For the last part, I am trying to work out: If Sullenberger really did something exceptional, we should reward him personally. If Sullenberger "merely" did something that all commercial pilots would do... (I'll stipulate: and that I couldn't)... we should reward/hero-worship ALL pilots, and not just Sullenberger for having the misfortune of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Society offers respect for all veterans willing to risk their life, not just the ones who lose it. Should it be the same for pilots? I don't know.
    – Oddthinking
    Jul 18, 2011 at 0:42
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    DJClayworth, I take issue with your statement of air accident investigators are very reluctant to write "pilot error" as the cause of an accident That is simply not the case. In some eras, up to 80% of all accidents were listed as pilot error (to include both mechanical and weather related errors). Even today, over 50% of all accidents have an element of pilot error in the official NTSB report. Jul 18, 2011 at 1:35
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    Thanks. :) Again, keep in mind, a lot of the pilot error type accidents are part of a chain of errors, which usually are all part of a false sense of security. Capt Sullenberger didn't have that lead in type of behaviour in his incident, which may have contributed to his more correct handling of the situation. Jul 19, 2011 at 1:24
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    " In emergencies, do humans remember and follow the instructions in manuals?" And to know when the manual is wrong, as seems to be what in part caused the AF 330 crash over the Atlantic. "the military had problems with draftees in WWII not actually firing at the enemy, but deliberately firing over their heads" never heard that. Did hear that 90% never actually used their weapon when they should have. Don't know if that's correct either.
    – jwenting
    Jul 19, 2011 at 7:05
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    "Again, keep in mind, a lot of the pilot error type accidents are part of a chain of errors, which usually are all part of a false sense of security. " And that a lot of accidents are labelled "pilot error" when actually the actual cause of the error is external and just unanticipated or unrecognised, causing false or conflicting alarms which aren't covered in that combination by existing training.
    – jwenting
    Jul 19, 2011 at 7:06

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