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Disaster Response: NOAA Ships, Planes, and Officers Offer Valuable Capabilities

NOAA Integrated Ocean Observing System Program

Office of Response and Restoration

Office of Coast Survey

NOS Responds to U.S. Airways Flight 1549 Crash

NRT5 members supported USCG sonar activities

Members of Navigation Response Team 5 helped the U.S. Coast Guard with side scan sonar operations during the search.

At 3:31 PM on January 15, 2009, U.S. Airways Flight 1549, an Airbus A320 commercial passenger plane, made an emergency water landing on the Hudson River, on the West Side of Manhattan in New York City. The National Ocean Service was at the ready, supporting passenger rescue, assessing risk of contamination to the environment, and helping to survey the cold and icy river for the wreckage of the plane.

Remarkably, all 155 passengers on board the flight survived the crash. However, with temperatures below freezing and swift currents dragging the plane south as it slowly sank, rescuers had to act fast to bring the passengers to safety. Data from Integrated Ocean Observing System (IOOS®) network sensors within the New York Harbor Observing Prediction System were critical in reducing this response time.  Within minutes of the crash, IOOS partners at the Stevens Institute of Technology in New Jersey sent a detailed report of near real-time water conditions surrounding the site and a forecast of conditions for the next 48 hours to the U.S. Coast Guard, the Director of Watch Command for the New York City Office of Emergency Management, and the Emergency Medical Services Command Center, Fire Department of New York. 

Flight 1549 crashed only a few minutes after take-off and was carrying the full load of jet fuel needed to make its trip. This class of aircraft has a 6,300-gallon fuel capacity, meaning that potentially as much as 6,300 gallons of oil could have leaked into the waters of the Hudson, causing environmental harm.  The Office of Response and Restoration’s Emergency Response Division coordinated with the National Weather Service to provide the Coast Guard with weather forecast and river current information on the Lower Hudson River and prepared an analysis of the potential fate and persistence of the fuel onboard.

Side scan image of the bottom of the Hudson River

A side scar sonar image of the bottom of the Hudson River taken during efforts to locate the missing engines. Side scan sonar is most useful to locate sea-floor features and possible obstructions, but does not provide depth information.

In the hours following the crash, the Office of Coast Survey’s Navigation Response Team 5 (NRT5) supported efforts to assist New York City Police, the Coast Guard, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and the Federal Bureau of Investigation in locating the missing engines from the plane. Despite the NRT5 boat being under repair, Coast Survey personnel worked on board a police boat to locate objects of interest via side scan sonar, an echo sounding technology that captures images from the sea floor.

NOAA also supplied a portable side scan sonar that was used on an Army Corps of Engineers survey vessel by NRT5 personnel in order to double search efforts.  This portable side scan sonar is a dedicated NOAA tool which can be shipped quickly to anywhere in the coastal U.S. to support efforts during emergency marine situations.

Additionally, NOS and IOOS partners provided around-the-clock, on-call assistance to various emergency agencies in order to assist with salvage operations.  The National Transportation Safety Board and salvage teams used this information to lift the plane out of the water.