Cactus 1549

Instrumentation: 3(3rd dbl. picc.).3(3rd dbl. eng. hn.).3(3rd dbl. bcl.).2; 4/3/3/1; Timpani + 3; Strings

In July 2010, I discovered that the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) had released recordings and transcripts of air traffic control communications related to Cactus 1549, the US Airways flight that suffered a double bird strike and made an emergency landing in the Hudson River. All aboard survived and were able to exit the plane to rescue. As I listened, I heard so many more voices than I had expected – controllers, pilots, supervisors – and I decided that I wanted to share the story beyond the few choice sound bites that had circulated the news. It took a long time to figure out how to use the available recordings, and even longer to decide how to approach the story musically. In December 2013, the New England Conservatory Philharmonia read and recorded the orchestral portion of Cactus 1549 which was integrated into a “live mockup” with the audio track.

(View YouTube video with captions on)

Listen Only:

About the Emergency

On January 15, 2009, US Airways (callsign “Cactus”) flight 1549 experienced a loss of thrust in both engines due to a bird strike during takeoff from New York’s LaGuardia International Airport. With no possibility of making it back for an emergency landing at the airport, pilot Chesley Sullenberger (with assistance from First Officer Jeffrey Skiles) maneuvered the Airbus A320 over the Hudson River, into which he was able to land just three minutes after takeoff. Due to Sullenberger’s expert handling of the aircraft as well as the proximity of commuter and rescue boats, all 150 passengers and 5 crew members were able to exit the plane to safety. Meanwhile, throughout the emergency, air traffic controllers at LaGuardia and JFK in New York; and Teterboro and Newark in New Jersey, worked to set up emergency landing possibilities at three of the four different airports and to keep all agencies on the ground informed and ready to mobilize. By chance, two private charter helicopters (heard on the recordings as callsigns 2TA “Two-Tango-Alpha” and 1SA “One-Sierra-Alpha”), were nearby at the scene of the splashdown and were also able to relay crucial updates back to the ground.

About the Audio

One of my biggest priorities in telling this story was to do so through the perspective of a group effort. The audio component of the piece is derived from 8 different recordings of communications between various air traffic control locations and Cactus 1549, which have been released into the public domain as part of the official accident data. The clips have been edited for duration, timing, and audible clarity, but not context or meaning. I took some creative license in constructing the collection of fragments at the end of the piece in a way that would best clarify the situation. Additionally, since more than one location was communicating at the same time, there are also moments in which overlapping timestamps made it necessary to put clips out of order or back-to-back to work with the linear progression of events in the piece. I shortened large gaps of silence between some transmissions, and lengthened other time frames to allow for pockets of important orchestral moments. Lastly, of course, I did not include the routine transmissions between other aircraft that were occurring during the time of the accident.

Earl Lee conducts the NEC Philharmonia in a reading session of Cactus 1549To read a transcript of the audio excerpts used in the piece, click HERE

About the Plane

The Airbus A320 that Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger landed safely in the Hudson River is now a part of the Carolinas Aviation Museum located in Charlotte, North Carolina, the original destination of Flight 1549. Check out their Facebook page to see pictures and read about the journey of the plane to the museum.