15 Years After the Miracle: US Airways Flight 1549 Revisited

Watching the documentary on Flight 1549 survivors celebrating and sharing stories, I couldn't shake the burden of my legal education, particularly grappling with the conundrum of "mental injury" in air law.

8 mins read
US Airways Flight 1549 was a scheduled flight from New York City's LaGuardia Airport to Charlotte and Seattle on January 15, 2009. The Airbus A320 struck a flock of birds shortly after takeoff, losing all engine power.

We had a Miracle on 34th Street. I believe now we have had a Miracle on the Hudson. ~ New York Governor David Paterson on the successful rescue of all persons on board Flight 1549

January 15th will mark the 15th anniversary of the “miracle on the Hudson”. On January 15, 2009, US Airways Flight 1549, a regularly scheduled service from New York City (LaGuardia Airport) to Charlotte and Seattle in the United States, encountered a significant incident. The Airbus A320 aircraft, which was operating the flight, collided with a flock of birds shortly after takeoff from LaGuardia, resulting in a complete loss of engine power. Facing a critical situation due to their proximity to available airports and the aircraft’s low altitude, pilots Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger and Jeffrey Skiles made the decision to skillfully glide the plane for an emergency landing in the Hudson River near Midtown Manhattan. The entire sequence, from the bird strike to the successful ditching, transpired in less than four minutes. Some passengers either leaped or unintentionally fell into the water, yet what stood out was the cooperative spirit among them. Both fellow passengers and flight attendants observed how the situation appeared remarkably orderly and controlled during those critical moments. Some individuals strategically positioned themselves on rafts and wings, while others resourcefully utilized seat cushions as makeshift flotation devices. Miraculously, all 155 individuals on board were safely rescued by nearby boats, and only a handful sustained serious injuries.

In the aftermath, certain passengers grappled with post-traumatic stress, struggling to come to terms with the reality of their survival. The airline extended apologies to each affected individual, along with financial compensation and a refund for their tickets. Remarkably, efforts were made to recover some of the passengers’ baggage.

The crew’s commendable actions received recognition from President George W. Bush and President-elect Barack Obama, both of whom praised their efforts. The crew members were even invited to attend President Obama’s inauguration just five days after the incident. Further accolades followed, including a standing ovation at the Super Bowl and the presentation of keys to the city by Mayor Michael Bloomberg

Captain “Sully” will go down in the annals of commercial aviation as a hero whose spontaneous wisdom and professional competence saved all those on board. This was a quintessential example of the emergency mantra of aviation which is known as ANC (aviate, navigate, and communicate) as well as the ultimate responsibility of an aircraft commander to secure the safety of passengers on board which was exemplified by Captain Sully who walked up and down, twice, alone in a sinking aircraft to make sure there was no one left behind after all passengers had sought the solace of the two aircraft wings that served as a platform on the frigid Hudson river until helped arrived. 

On 7 January 2024, to mark the incident’s 15th anniversary, CNN aired a documentary which interviewed the passengers on board the aircraft, most of whom thought they were going to die that day. Their stories were encouraging and inspirational, as well as uplifting and life changing, giving us an insight into the positive psychological upheaval they have experienced over the past 15 years. 

Psychology of the Surviving Passenger

Science Daily has said that enduring an aircraft crash is a distressing event, and the psychological aftermath can differ among individuals. Certain survivors may encounter post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) symptoms, including flashbacks, nightmares, and anxiety. Nevertheless, research disclosed at the 107th Annual Convention of the American Psychological Association revealed that those who survive airplane crashes tend to fare better psychologically compared to individuals who have not experienced such incidents. Another report from The Guardian offers a comprehensive narrative of a woman who emerged as the only survivor of a plane crash, highlighting the transformative impact of the trauma on her life.

The American Psychological Association has reported that research conducted by Gary Capobianco, M.A., from Old Dominion University, and Thanos Patelis, Ph.D., affiliated with The College Board in New York, delved into the mental health of 15 survivors of airplane crashes (comprising 11 males and 4 females aged 31 to 67 years) and eight individuals who frequently travel by air for business or leisure but have never experienced a crash. Both cohorts were required to complete questionnaires assessing their levels of anxiety, depression, and posttraumatic stress.

According to the authors, the psychological well-being of airplane crash survivors was notably superior across all measured parameters compared to those who regularly travel by air without any history of aviation accidents or crashes. Surprisingly, crash survivors exhibited lower scores on various standardized measures of emotional distress compared to individuals who had not been involved in any accidents, as reported by the researchers.

There were indications that the level of distress experienced by survivors correlated with their actions during the crisis. In cases of flight crew survivors who believed they had control over circumstances leading to or causing the crash, they reported lower levels of distress. Similarly, passenger survivors who felt in control of their actions, such as how quickly they exited the plane or whether they assisted others, also reported reduced distress.

Regardless of how survivors perceived or defined control, those who affirmed having control over any events related to the crash consistently showed the lowest scores on all distress measures with statistical significance.  Interestingly, among survivors who neither desired nor required immediate counseling post-crash, a notable observation was that many seemed to be the least troubled by the incident, reporting the least amount of distress among the survivor group.

According to Dr. Oren Amitay, a registered psychologist based in Toronto and an instructor at Ryerson University, the trauma resulting from a plane crash is distinct. In contrast to incidents like muggings, assaults, or car crashes where individuals may not have the opportunity to reflect on their lives, plane crashes involve a critical moment when people witness their lives flashing before their eyes. This period prompts individuals to reassess various aspects of their lives.

Dr. Amitay pointed out that we all carry defenses to safeguard ourselves, but in the face of near-death experiences, these defenses tend to diminish. He highlighted that a traumatic event, such as a plane crash, has the potential to bring about a significant and sudden shift in one’s personality. It marks a powerful transformation in how individuals perceive themselves, the world around them, and their roles in it.

During the 1980s, numerous investigations were carried out to explore the psychological well-being of survivors of airplane accidents. One noteworthy incident occurred in 1985 at Manchester International Airport when a fire erupted on a Boeing 737 before takeoff, resulting in the tragic death of 54 individuals on board. Eighty managed to survive, but as the fire spread within the aircraft, passengers experienced confusion, heightened anxiety, and erupted into screams of hysteria. Some passengers, even when dazed, followed instructions that seemed counterintuitive, such as remaining seated with seat belts fastened, as noted by Robert Bor and Todd Hubbard, the authors of Aviation Mental Health.

Upon their rescue, researchers observed that the survivors felt compelled to discuss the incident, potentially using it as a coping mechanism. Meanwhile, some survivors sought a scapegoat, someone to hold responsible for the incident. This led to the development of paranoid attitudes, particularly towards those who advised them to stay seated. Additionally, certain victims grappled with survivors’ guilt, further illustrating the complex psychological aftermath of the traumatic event. In a 1999 study, New York scientists investigated the well-being of 15 survivors of plane crashes and uncovered positive results for the victims. Comparatively, these survivors exhibited better mental health than a control group of frequent flyers who had not experienced any airborne dangers. However, this optimistic outlook was found to be prevalent only among those who perceived themselves to be in control during the crash.

According to the researchers, “Flight crew survivors who believed they had control over events that may have led to or caused the crash reported less distress.” Similarly, passenger survivors who felt in control of their actions and reactions during the crash also reported lower levels of distress.

The researchers were also able to say that the manner in which individuals cope with stressors is deemed as crucial as the traumatic event itself, as emphasized by Amitay. If survivors dwell on the fear and loss of control, it could lead to heightened anxiety. On the other hand, focusing on survival and cultivating resilience can be empowering.

The aftermath of crash landings, even those without physical injuries, has been documented by researchers. For instance, in 1984, a university basketball team experienced a crash landing in the United States. Twelve days later, 93 percent of the group was still grappling with hyper alertness, concentration difficulties, irritability, and sleep disturbances. They reported dreams about the incident, physical pain, and a sense of detachment from the world. Even at the one-year mark, five of the victims continued to report these symptoms. Despite emerging physically unharmed from the accident, they still carried enduring “personal experiences of terror.”

AC 624

On 28 March 2015 at 8.52 P.M. an Air Canada Airbus A320 twin-jet left Toronto Pearson International Airport carrying 133 passengers and five crew members. At 11:10 p.m. ET (12:10 a.m. AT) when the plane circled Halifax International Airport preparing for landing, the weather turned extremely inclement at 11.30 P.M. The plane hit a bright orange antenna array nearly 1,100 feet before the end of the runway causing considerable damage to the aircraft. The main landing gear came off at that point. It took crews approximately 50 minutes to get the 133 passengers and five crew members off the plane and either into the airport for warmth or to a local hospital.

An 11-year-old passenger said that it was difficult to sleep at night after the crash. He said: “I was going over it in my head. It was scary that night for me. I kept going over [it] and it was really scary… I get a bit disturbed because a lot of people are asking me about [the crash]. It’s disturbing and annoying how everyone asks me.”

Clinical psychologist Dr. Diane Birch emphasized the importance of discussing traumatic events, particularly in the context of Air Canada flight 624. Dr. Birch, who specialized  in treating anxiety and trauma (at that time), noted that individuals commonly experience symptoms such as nightmares, flashbacks, irritability, and heightened vigilance after such incidents. She described the psychological process as oscillating between being on guard, with the mind urging to remember the frightening experience, and the opposite reaction of attempting to forget. Some individuals may even find their minds shutting down, leading to blank periods or difficulties in maintaining normal relationships.

Dr. Birch acknowledged the natural tendency for people to perceive the world as a foreboding and scary place following a traumatic incident. However, she underscored the role of friends and family in providing support, saying that engaging in open conversations about the event is crucial for moving forward in the recovery process.

“Some of the very best things that people can do in order to move on from an incident like this is to talk to other people,” she emphasized, cautioning against avoiding the subject as it might hinder recovery. Through such conversations, memories may become less frequent, and individuals can gradually return to their normal selves, regaining the ability to concentrate.

Dr. Birch pointed out that while the majority may find relief through communication, around 10 percent of individuals may experience more severe symptoms. If, after a month, there is no improvement, and the trauma significantly interferes with daily life, seeking professional help becomes crucial. In the case of Air Canada flight 624 survivors, Dr. Birch suggested confronting any fears related to flying and gradually exposing themselves to being near an aircraft again as part of the recovery process.

My Take

In its report CNN documented how the survivors of Flight 1549 gather every January (with Captain Sully attending) to celebrate the courage of the flight crew, cabin crew and passengers that day. They exchange stories and rejoice in conviviality and gratitude. Watching this documentary, I could not help but experience  the burden of legal education I carried, heavily weighted with the conundrum of the word “mental injury” at air law.  It has always been an unfathomable abstraction defying proper legal definition that would justify compensation for injury caused.  Although in the international context ( it should be remembered that Flight AC 1549 was a domestic flight) the carrier is liable for damage caused in the event of death or injury if the accident that caused the damage occurred on board or in the process of embarkation or disembarkation, the compensable injury envisioned is physical injury or mental injury which is a direct cause of physical injury. Pure mental injury sui generis is not compensable. As Brian C.J said in his judgement  “the mind of man cannot be fathomed, as the devil himself knoweth not the mind of man”.

Brian C. J. reflects on the concept of judgment, suggesting that the human mind is inscrutable. The quote implies that even the devil, a symbol of profound knowledge or darkness, cannot comprehend the intricacies of the human mind.  It is hoped that the indomitable spirit shown by those who were interviewed by CNN, and their positive approach to their “second chance” at life  can shed some light on this conundrum.

Ruwantissa Abeyratne

Dr. Abeyratne teaches aerospace law at McGill University. Among the numerous books he has published are Air Navigation Law (2012) and Aviation Safety Law and Regulation (to be published in 2023). He is a former Senior Legal Counsel at the International Civil Aviation Organization.

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