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Controller Patrick Harten, In First Public Comments, Tells Story of Working US Airways Flight 1549 - (2/24/2009)

CONTACTS: Doug Church, 301-346-8245

WASHINGTON, D.C. – New York TRACON (Terminal Radar Approach Control) air traffic controller Patrick Harten testified before the House Aviation Subcommittee today that when he heard US Airways Flight 1549 Captain Chesley Sullenberger tell him on the radio frequency, “We’re gonna be in the Hudson,” he feared this was the plane’s “death sentence.”

“I asked him to repeat himself, even though I heard him just fine. I simply could not wrap my mind around those words,” said Harten, a 10-year veteran, experienced controller, who joined the crew of Flight 1549 on the first panel of witnesses at a hearing called to examine the remarkable event of Jan. 15, 2009. “People don’t survive landings on the Hudson River. I believed at that moment, I was going to be the last person to talk to anyone on that plane alive.”

But even after Harten lost radio contact with Flight 1549 and the target disappeared from his radar scope as the Airbus A320 dropped below the tops of the Manhattan skyscrapers, there was one, last, brief glimmer of hope when the radar target momentarily reappeared at a very low altitude above the river, past the George Washington Bridge. Harten believed the crew had possibly regained the use of one of its engines. “Grasping at that tiny glimmer of hope,” Harten testified, “I told 1549 that it could land at Newark seven miles away on Runway 29, but I received no response. I then lost radar contact again, this time for good.”

Here are some other highlights from Harten’s testimony:

  • Upon hearing Capt. Sullenberger tell him they suffered a bird strike and needed to return to New York-LaGuardia Airport: “When a pilot tells a controller he needs to make an emergency landing, the controller must act quickly and decisively. While I have worked 10 or 12 emergencies over the course of my career, I have never worked an aircraft with zero thrust capabilities. I understood how grave this situation was.”
  • After Capt. Sullenberger declared “Unable” after Harten’s second try at giving him landing options at LaGuardia: “I then asked the captain what he needed to do to land safely. At this point, my job was to coordinate and arrange for the pilot to be able to do whatever was necessary.” 
  • Upon the suggestion of Teterboro Airport as another possible place to land: “I had experience working traffic into Teterboro from my time working in the Newark sector (at the New York TRACON) and after coordinating with the controllers in Teterboro, we were able to determine that Runway 1 was the best option. It was the arrival runway, and clearing it for an emergency landing would be easier and faster. It also meant that 1549 would be landing into the wind, which could have assisted the pilot in making a safe landing.”
  • After he was relieved from his radar position following the loss of radar and radio contact with Flight 1549: “It was the lowest low I had ever felt. I wanted to talk to my wife (Regina). But I knew if I tried to speak or ever heard her voice, I would fall apart completely. I settled for a hasty text message: “Had a crash. Not OK. Can’t talk now.” When I got home, she told me she thought I had been in a car accident. Truth was I felt like I’d been hit by a bus.”
  • The fact that he says the hardest and most traumatic part of the entire event was when it was over: “During the emergency itself, I was hyper-focused. I had no choice but to think and act quickly, and remain calm. But when it was over, it hit me hard. It felt like hours before I learned about the heroic water landing that Captain Sullenberger and his crew had managed. Even after I learned the truth, I could not shake the image of tragedy in my mind. Every time I saw the survivors on the television, I imagined grieving widows. It has taken over a month for me to be able to see that I did a good job.”

Harten returns to work later this week for the first time since the incident.

Click Here to read Harten’s complete testimony.


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