Twin Aviation Miracles

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Nearly 29 years apart, two miracles in airline transportation occurred on opposite sides of the Atlantic Ocean.  One amazing landing and rescue happened along the northwest African coast while the other made history on the American side at New York City.

The Romanian Miracle

In 1980, a TAROM (Romanian Air Transport) aircraft enroute from Bucharest and piloted by a Romanian with 168 crew and passengers on board, landed in the Atlantic Ocean under total darkness.  Not many people know that Captain Paul Mitu and his crew miraculously saved all but one of the passengers and crew on board a Tupolev 154 airplane.

Because of defective routing equipment at the airport in Mauritania, on the northwest African coast, the TAROM aircraft landed in the ocean, almost half a mile short of the runway.  Fortunately, the airplane landed aground on a sand bank just off the shoreline.

On August 7, 1980, at approximately 3:00 a.m., TAROM’s Tupolev aircraft, attempted to land at the Nouadhibou airport in Mauritania.  Most of the 152 passengers on board were Romanian fishermen working the Atlantic Ocean near Mauritania.  Captain Mitu contacted the flight controllers, and guided by ground equipment, landing began.  Mitu, realizing that the plane’s approach was well below the proper flight path, thundered the engines trying to correct the flight track of the aircraft as the pilots could not see the runway.

The most affected areas of the plane were the business class passengers and the section back to the wing of the aircraft.  Here two serious injuries, a flight attendant and a security officer, were reported. One of the three engines on the airplane continued to run after the collapse on the sand.  This may have been a good point as the running engine probably kept hungry sharks away from the downed aircraft.

Passengers who had seats in the wrecked portion of the plane gathered on its wings while all the people at the rear of the aircraft continued to sit terrified in the darkness. The airplane was broken into two pieces with the cockpit and forward area partially submerged in the water.

For an hour and a half, the flight crew and passengers waited for Mauritania Coast Guard boats to appear. Some passengers took it upon themselves to swim to safety instead of waiting for help.  The rescuers found a dead passenger on the plane, and a later investigation revealed that the passenger had died from a heart attack before impact.

Aurelia Grigore, one of the flight attendants, was busy helping passengers exit the plane.  She and the entire crew were worried that the plane might slide back into the ocean.  Later, she heroically stayed with an injured flight attendant, who was thought dead.  Her neck injury prevented her from being able to escape without medical assistance.  Grigore stayed with her for nearly three hours in the dark and dangerous setting.

Upon investigation following the incident, authorities determined that the Tupolev aircraft crashed due to failure of ground guidance.  TAROM collected 36 million dollars in insurance payments for the damaged plane, which never flew again.

Following this accident, Paul Mitu initially faced close scrutiny as some investigators blamed his incompetence for the accident.  His pilot credentials were stripped, and he was not allowed to fly any aircraft.  After facing a relentless investigation and court proceedings, Mitu was eventually exonerated of any wrongdoing, and he returned to flying commercial aircraft once again.  Today, he is recognized for his skill in saving the lives of nearly 170 people.

Captain Mitu would continue flying until 1993 as he completed a distinguished 34-year career.  In a translated quote, he recalls the harrowing accident, “In moments of this kind, see how death approaches you . . . Develop force that helps you get over it . . . .”  Facing overwhelming odds, Mitu and his crew turned a negative situation into one filled with much hope and a positive ending.  He has remained an inspiration to many pilots in his country.

Initially, very little was publicized in Romania about this incident because of the strict regulation of the press by the Romanian government.  Following the Romanian Revolution in 1989, more of the facts, without Communist Party censorship, came to light.  The story of this incredible night off of the West African coast is now known to many Romanians as well as the rest of the world.

The American Miracle

Many Americans, as well as the others around the world, have heard of the “Miracle on the Hudson” in some way.  Certainly, the passengers and crew will remember the fateful, yet heroic day of January 15, 2009 forever.

With an Airbus 320 nearly filled to capacity, US Airways Flight 1549 welcomed 155 passengers and crew for a routine flight to Charlotte, North Carolina.  Before taking off from New York City’s LaGuardia Airport, Captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger and his crew prepared to make this flight as comfortable and hassle-free as possible for the passengers.

Seated in the climate-controlled cabin of the aircraft, the passengers had forgotten about the winter weather outside and an air temperature of 20 degrees Fahrenheit.  The nearby Hudson River’s freezing water looked serene and innocent along mid-Manhattan.

With the reliable aircraft in the capable hands of a veteran pilot and seasoned crew, the flight seemed as safe as any being made on this January day.  Upon take-off, the plane made a rapid ascent from LaGuardia.  Suddenly without warning, the engines began to lose thrust.  A flock of geese impacted the plane near its engines, and the wounded Airbus was now in desperate straits.

In less than four minutes, 208 seconds to be exact, Flight 1549 faced almost insurmountable odds for survival.  When a plane takes off, the moment is one of the most critical times for any flight.  For anyone who has flown, think of sitting in one’s seat, feeling the thrust of the plane moving rapidly forward and upward, and then nothing!

Instinctively, Captain Sullenberger lowered the aircraft’s nose to enable a more controlled, gliding speed.  The pilots radioed air traffic control that the plane had been struck by birds, and they were declaring an emergency.

With only precious seconds available, Sullenberger quickly weighed his options:  (1) turn back to LaGuardia, (2) attempt to reach nearby Teterboro Airport on the New Jersey side of the Hudson River, or (3) use the Hudson as an emergency runway.  Due to the total loss of power, there would be little time to mull over an escape plan to prevent eminent disaster.

Making his decision, Sullenberger’s final words to air traffic were, “We’re gonna be in the Hudson.”

The crippled aircraft made a gradual, controlled descent as it cleared the nearby George Washington Bridge by less than 900 feet.  Passengers were praying, expecting the worse, and all were told to brace for impact.  Facing so much agonizing suspense and uncertainty, some passengers worried that the plane might flip over and break apart at impact.

As Flight 1549 made an approach to its frigid, watery runway, witnesses along the Hudson recalled no aircraft engine noise as the disabled plane glided lower and lower.  The Airbus proved its maneuverability and control as it made a slow contact with the river’s surface.

As the aircraft floated to a stop on the river, it immediately began filling with the Hudson’s freezing water.  The passengers’ ordeal seemed far from over, but heroic help was on the way.  Assisting Sullenberger with evacuating the plane as quickly as possible, was his very capable co-pilot Jeffrey Skiles as well as the rest of the flight crew.  With the calmness and professionalism of the well-trained pilots and flight crew, the passengers exited the sinking plane to the wings.  People along the Hudson’s shoreline watched the rescue developing . . . awestruck!

Water had now filled the inside of the abandoned Airbus up to its windows.  With amazing speed and skill, various boats from the Coast Guard, police, fire, and local ferries reached the very cold and wet passengers.  Amazingly, everyone on board was rescued.

Final Remarks

Both of these incidents can be classified as a “near miss.”  This means that serious error or mishap had the potential to cause an adverse event, but it failed to do so.  Obviously, more of the world is probably familiar with the “Miracle on the Hudson” of Flight 1549 because of the worldwide coverage of the event in the press.  The “African Miracle” was much less publicized due to the closed society at the time in Romania.  Today, Romania is free of the restricted press so that much more information is available to read and research from.

Both aircraft never flew again.  The Romanian Tupolev 154 was damaged beyond repair as the plane had nearly been severed upon impact.  The American Airbus 320 was rescued from the Hudson’s watery grasp, and it now sits on display in Charlotte, North Carolina at the Carolinas Aviation Museum.

Both pilots, Mitu and Sullenberger, were hailed as heroes, but both men faced careful deliberations about their actions as part of the usual investigations into an aircraft accident.  While Sullenberger emerged from the investigation unscathed, Mitu had to deal with much graver threats of prosecution and prison time.  Eventually, he was cleared of any wrongdoing, and he returned to fly for many more years.  Sullenberger was nearly at the end of a distinguished flying career, and he would retire a year after Flight 1549’s fateful flight.

In both incidents, aircraft personnel—pilots and flight crew—showed amazing poise and skill in preventing greater loss of life.  This is the crowning achievement because each of these “near miss” opportunities concluded with an extraordinary and amazing ending.

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