By Joseph Kellard and Jim Harmon
“I’m starting to shake again just talking about it,” 34-year-old Patrick Harten said last Friday, the day after he helped US Airways Flight 1549 avoid a potential catastrophe on its way to a crash-landing in the Hudson River.
Harten, of Long Beach, was the air traffic controller who quickly but methodically assisted the stricken aircraft’s cockpit crew in the critical moments after a flock of Canada geese apparently took out both of the plane’s engines.
“We have a double bird strike,” were the first unexpected words Harten recalled hearing on his headset less than two minutes after the plane took off. And then there were more: “We’ve lost thrust.”
Capt. Chesley Sullenberger, 58, and his co-pilot, Jeffrey Skiles, 49, suddenly had no choice but to bring the plane down fast, but that was only one of the challenges facing Harten and his colleagues at the offices of Terminal Radar Approach Control, known as TRACON, in Westbury, who were handling flights in and out of LaGuardia Airport.
Harten talked the cockpit crew through a wide turn to the south, back toward the airport, which deviated from the turn to the west that the flight plan called for. At that point, he explained, “The guy’s going through airspace he’s not supposed to be in,” and other controllers joined in the effort by doing “point-outs” — alerts about Flight 1549 to other aircraft in the vicinity.
Harten — who wasn’t sure whether he was talking with Sullenberger or Skiles — asked if they wanted to land at LaGuardia’s Runway 13. “Unable,” came the reply.
“How about Runway 4?” Harten said.
“Unable.” By this point, Harten said, he had radioed the LaGuardia control tower that he was shutting down all departures, and the normally noisy room full of controllers grew “pretty quiet.”
The flight crew then inquired about the airport off to their right.
“That’s Teterboro,” Harten told them. “You wanna go there?”
But it was too late. Only seconds later, as Harten remembered it, “He said something like, ‘I’m goin’ in the river,’ and I said something like, ‘Say again?’”
That was their final exchange.
A Long Beach resident since 2003 and an air traffic controller for 10 years, Harten estimated that he has guided thousands of aircraft into and out of the skies, but nothing like this had ever happened. “This was ... unique,” he deadpanned, and then his tone grew serious. “It was traumatic.”
After Flight 1549 landed in the Hudson and as the passengers and crew were being rescued, Harten thought of getting in touch with his wife. “I knew if I talked to her I’d get emotional,” he said, “so I texted her: ‘Had a crash. I’m not OK. Can’t talk now.’”
He had barely slept that night, he said. But he was looking forward to unwinding over the weekend in Las Vegas, where he was meeting up with other members of his family, including his father, a retired air traffic controller.
The day before the crash, Harten said, he and his wife, who are shopping for a new car, test-drove an SUV. When they started it up, the odometer read 7-7-7. “I’ve never gambled,” he said, “but I may have to gamble on this trip.”
* This story originally appeared in the Long Beach Herald in 2009.