October 16, 2009

Move Over Sully…

Oh snap! The broken off tail makes for a nifty escape hatch.
Oh snap! The broken off tail makes for a nifty escape hatch.
Last week in a conversation, I let it slip that US Airways Flight 1549 was the first airliner to successfully “land” on water with everyone on board surviving. Whoopsies! I knew this wasn’t true, and I thought about the similarities between US Airways 1549 and another airliner that went for a swim over 50 years ago.

On October 16th, 1956, Pan Am Flight 6 departed Honolulu, Hawaii (before it was a state!), enroute to San Francisco at 8:26pm HST. Once the Boeing 377 Stratocruiser (registered 90943, “Clipper Sovereign Of The Skies”) reached the midway point between the two airports, the aircraft’s number 1 engine experienced an overspeed issue at 21,000ft, followed shortly thereafter by a failure of the number 4 engine as well.

Unable to make it to San Fran or back to Hawaii with only two remaining engines and excessive drag generated by the dead motors, Captain Richard N. Ogg decided to ditch into the water. Thankfully, the United States Coast Guard Cutter Pontchartrain was in the vicinity and the Pan Am flight flew to its location.

The aircraft stayed aloft for five hours, circling Pontchartrain while waiting for daylight and burning excess fuel at 2,000 feet, before Captain Ogg carefully set her down in the drink. Knowing there was a possibility the tail would break off upon impact, based on the ditching of Pan Am Flight 845 the previous year, the crew had decided to move the passengers to the front of the aircraft. The move almost certainly saved lives as the tail broke off this time as well.

Using the missing tail section as a massive escape door, the passengers emerged from the aircraft, boarded three rafts (a fourth raft did not properly inflate) and waited for the Coast Guard rescue boats retrieve them. After 21 minutes the now empty aircraft sank below the waves. All 31 on-board survived.

I should note that in truth, there were 45 fatalities on this flight…in the form of canaries being flown as cargo that drowned upon the ships sinking. This flight is also often known at “Flight 943″ as the aircraft registration was often referenced for communications.

Other no-fatality water ditchings include an Aeroflot Tu-124 into the Neva River on August 21, 1963; Japan Airlines Flight 2, a DC-8 that fell two miles short of SFO into San Francisco Bay on November 22, 1968; and of course, US Airways 1549 into the Hudson River in New York City on January 15, 2009.