The audio and transcripts of radio and phone communications by air traffic controllers while the US Airways flight was ditching in the Hudson River last month have been released. I'm going to talk about them today and finish the trip to Texas tomorrow. To hear communications between the pilots and the departure controller, listen to the first one, the New York Tracon.
It's not too hard to understand, once you get past the New York accents. There are very few transmissions from US1549. Talking on the radio is low priority and low priority tasks drop out during an emergency. This explains both how little is said and how little urgency is in the pilot's voice as he relays the information. It's not just that he's calm, he's concentrating on something else. It's like a guy answering his girlfriend's questions while he's watching sports on TV.
"Unable" is the normal radio response to any request that can't be met. A pilot is unable to accept a runway because it's too short, or unable to turn to a particular heading because there are clouds there, and she's VFR. Or in this case unable to accept any of the offered landing runways because the airplane can't glide that far. The controller is working hard to make this work for these guys. You'll hear a telephone-like beep as the controller picks up a direct line to talk to another controllers to arrange landing priority for the emergency aircraft. The pilot initially wants to return to LaGuardia, then realizes he can't make that and warns the departure controller once that "we may end up in the Hudson." He considers Teterboro, but 22 seconds later he knows that's not going to work. "We can't do it," he says, "We're gonna be in the Hudson."
Realize that the air traffic controllers can't see the airplane. They have a radar trace down to maybe a few hundred feet, but the altitude and position on that updates in jumps, so what they see is not completely up to date. Once the airplane descends below radar they know nothing about it.
The controllers know the airplane has gone down, and probably assume the worst. An interesting transcript to read is the cab coordinator, who is trying to stay on top of all this. You only hear his communication with remote positions, not him talking to his controllers. He can't see what's going on out there either, but he's using all his resources, calling for a controller to get him a police helicopter on frequency. Eventually what I believe is a sightseeing tour helicopter is diverted to determine what is going on. And finally the coordinator gets the good news that there are "lots of survivors."
This New York Times article by Matthew Wald interprets the audio well.
To know more about what was going on the the airplane during all this, we'll need to wait for the cockpit voice recorder transcript to be released.