January 16, 2009 / 7:17 PM / 10 years ago

As US Airways went down, fellow pilots fell silent

NEW YORK (Reuters) - When pilots on the tarmac at New York’s LaGuardia airport on Thursday heard that a US Airways passenger jet was going down on the Hudson River, they knew better than anybody that the odds of survival were grim.

Passengers are rescued after a U.S. Airways plane crashed into the Hudson River in New York January 15, 2009. A US Airways jet with more than 150 people on board came down into the frigid Hudson River off Manhattan after apparently hitting a flock of geese on Thursday and officials said everyone was rescued. REUTERS/Eric Thayer

This is the story of one of those pilots, Mark Wilkinson, who works for a regional carrier, in his own words:

“We pushed off the gate around 3:20 p.m. and were taxiing to Runway 4 as the US Airways took off. I noticed firetrucks with lights on scrambling toward the end of the runway but didn’t think much of it since drills are carried out frequently.

“Around 3:30 p.m., the ground controller frantically asked the rescue team what they had seen and the reply was a vague, ‘He’s in the water.’

“The controller then asked for clarification and the response was ‘I lost the target, he’s in the Hudson,’ at which point we knew an airplane had gone down.

“My first assumption was that it might have been a general aviation aircraft that had run into trouble but seconds later a query came on the radio: ‘What type was it?’

“The answer was terrifying. ‘Airbus 319 or 320, Cactus.’ Cactus is US Airways’ call sign. The LaGuardia ground frequency, usually bustling with calls, went completely silent.

“In a very somber tone of voice, about 10 minutes after it all happened, the controller announced that the Airbus had ingested a bird on take-off and gone down in the river.

“Departures were stopped. The radio was dead silent as every pilot no doubt contemplated the fate of the US Airways crew and their passengers on such a frigid day with the typically bad odds of ditching an airliner.

“We sat on the taxiway for the next 45 minutes, looking to our right at Manhattan and the direction of the crash wondering if anyone would make it out. All we could see were helicopters hovering over the scene.

“A few minutes later, we tuned our low-frequency navigation radio to a local AM news station and began to hear the news that there were passengers in rafts and on the wings. We were astounded to later see pictures of the unscathed aircraft.

“It was my leg to fly and taking off from the same runway and making the same left turns over the Hudson was very eerie. As we went over the area where the wreckage floated we flew in complete silence.”

The pilot managed to land the plane on the water and all 155 passengers and crew were rescued safely.

Reporting by Claudia Parsons; Editing by Eric Walsh

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