US Airways pilot hailed as a hero
Former fighter pilot Chesley Burnett "Sully" Sullenberger III has saved the lives of more than 150 people after safely guiding a plane into the freezing waters of New York's Hudson River, moments after a flock of birds reportedly cut the jet's engines.
US Airways Flight 1549 left LaGuardia Airport just after 3.26pm on Thursday (9.26am Friday NZT) and was headed for Charlotte, North Carolina.
The plane was in flight for three minutes before it got into trouble, media reports say.
In what is being described as a controlled "textbook ditching", the US Airways pilot turned around the Airbus A320 when it ran into trouble and flew it tail-down into the river just after 3.30pm.
As the plane floated in the river, 150 passengers, four crew members and the pilot on board climbed out of the emergency exits and stood on the wings and floating exit chutes.
The pilot has been named as Chesley Burnett "Sully" Sullenberger III, a former fighter pilot with the US Air Force and 40-year veteran of the aviation industry, according to the web site of his consulting firm, Safety Reliability Methods.
Mr Sullenberger's curriculum vitae states that he has been a pilot with US Airway since 1980. Before that he spent seven years flying F4 fighter jets with the US Air Force.
"It would appear that the pilot did a masterful job of landing the plane in the river, and then making sure everybody got out," New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg said.
ABC quoted the mayor as saying Mr Sullenberger "walked the plane twice to verify if anyone was on board" before getting out himself.
'First successful ditching of commercial passenger plane'
The president of the Australian and International Pilots Association, Barry Jackson, said he believed this was the first successful ditching of a commercial passenger plane ever.
An online forum for pilots was buzzing in the wake of the incident, with many contributers also speculating that this was the first time a passenger jet had successfully ditched.
"Ditching" is an intentional emergency landing in water. It appears to happen occasionally in the military and with smaller aircraft in general aviation but is understood to be extremely rare for commercial passenger jets.
Witness watched plane descend
West New York resident William Duckworth said he watched the plane descend into the river.
Mr Duckworth told the Herald: "The landing itself was very controlled. The pilot still had some control over the plane.
"The nose, he kept it up, and [the plane] went into the water tail first and that spun it around about 45 degrees but it continued to float."
British aviation expert James Ferguson told the BBC he had never seen anything like it.
"If you hit water fairly hard, as you will do with an aircraft, it tends to break up. But this aircraft seems to be virtually undamaged," Mr Ferguson said.
British Airways pilot Eric Moody told Sky News in England that the landing was a "textbook ditching".
"That very rarely happens, unless you are near a runway. Whoever has flown that has done a really good job," Mr Moody said.
It is believed a bird or flock of birds hit the plane less than three minutes after take-off and disabled two of its engines.
The temperature in New York City at the time was -6 degrees Celsius, The New York Times reported. The water temperature in the Hudson River was just below 6 degrees Celsius.
An aviation website that provides live tracking of flights, FlightAware, showed the flight plummeting minutes before it crashed into the river.
The log shows the plane rising to 3200 feet at 3.27pm, before dropping 2000 feet to 1200 feet in just two minutes.
The last entry, at 3.31pm, shows the flight had fallen to 300 feet.
Flight paths also show the pilot tried to turn the aircraft back towards the airport but was forced to land it in the river as it fell.
Witness Barbara Sambriski, said, "I just thought, 'Why is it so low?' And, splash, it hit the water."
A passenger identified as Alberto and interviewed on CNN said he escaped through one of the forward doors. He said that, shortly after take-off, there was a loud bang and the cabin smelled of smoke.
"We knew we were going down, then we just hit the water. Somehow the plane stayed afloat," he said. "I can't believe he somehow managed to land that plane safely. It's a near death experience that thankfully did not turn out that way."
He said the time between impact and people leaving the plane was "less than a minute". After some initial panic, people calmed down once they realised they were going to escape.
Mr Duckworth, who lives across the river from New York City, said he watched the plane fall.
"My wife and I were talking and we just happened to look out the window and we saw the plane flying at about rooftop level ... that was so strange, we were mesmerised, and we just watched it then go into the river."
He said the plane travelled about half a mile between when he first spotted it and when it hit the water.
"There were a lot of ferries that got to it very quickly, four or five that got to it almost immediately," he said.
Another survivor Fred Beretta reportedly said: "The engine blew out then the pilot turned around and made a line for the river. There was silence and everyone was waiting for what the pilot would say. A few minutes went by and he said: 'Prepare for impact.' Then we went into the water. You could smell the smoke."
Janis Krums, from Florida, was leaving New York on a ferry when the ferry diverted to rescue passengers on the crashed plane.
"There's a plane in the Hudson. I'm on the ferry going to pick up the people. Crazy," he wrote on his twitter page.
Mr and Mrs Duckworth took binoculars down to the river bank and watched as passengers poured out of the plane on to emergency exit chutes.
"I saw some passengers getting out of the plane and walking up a gang plank and then I saw other passengers walking along the wing, which by that time was a little bit under the water," he said.
"Then the tide changed and the plane started floating down the river, so I'm looking out of the [same] window now and it's completely out of sight."
Government officials say they have ruled out terrorism as a cause of the incident.
- with Arjun Ramachandran and Ian Munro
Sydney Morning Herald