On this day in 1951, Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger is born. Captain Sully is best known for successfully crash landing an airplane in the Hudson River. His feat came to be known as the “Miracle on the Hudson.”
U.S. Airways Flight 1549 would have been just another routine flight but for a massive flock of Canada geese. The birds crossed paths with the airplane about 90 seconds into its flight.
Those aboard instantly knew something was wrong.
“To me, it felt like we were under attack,” one passenger later described. “I’ve never felt anything so violent on a plane in my life.”
The engines were decimated.
“I knew I had to take control of the airplane,” Captain Sully later described. “I put my hand on the sidestick, and I said the protocol for transferring control, ‘My aircraft.’ And the first officer Jeff immediately answered, “your aircraft.’”
Sully would later describe the “worst sickening, pit-of-your-stomach, falling-through-the-floor feeling” that he had in those moments. “I knew I had to solve this problem,” he said. “I knew I had to find a way out of this box I’d found myself in.”
The lives of 155 people hung in the balance.
Sully radioed air traffic control that the plane “hit birds. We lost thrust in both engines, returning back towards LaGuardia.” Air traffic controller Patrick Harten cleared a runway, but Sully realized that he wouldn’t make it that far. A landing at Teterboro was considered, then dismissed. Sully looked to his left and saw the Hudson River. It would have to do.
“We’re going to be in the Hudson,” he told Harten.
“I simply could not wrap my mind around those words,” Harten said. “People do not survive landings on the Hudson River, and I thought it was his own death sentence. I believed at that moment I was going to be the last person to talk to anyone on that plane alive.”
Sully knew how dangerous the move was, too.
“I needed to touch down with the wings exactly level,” Sully said. “I needed to touch down with the nose slightly up. I needed to touch down at a descent rate that was survivable, and I needed to touch down just above our minimum flying speed, but not below it. And I needed to make all these things happen simultaneously.”
He got on the P.A. system and said three words that reverberated through the cabin: “Brace for impact!”
Flight attendant Doreen Welsh couldn’t believe it. “Terror doesn’t even begin to describe it,” she said. “It rippled through my body . . . I know what that means. There’s nothing else. That does not mean ‘maybe’ or ‘just in case.’ You’re crashing. Period. The end. You’re going down.”
Her training took over. Sully could hear the flight attendants barking instructions to the passengers. It comforted him. If he could get the plane down, the flight attendants were ready.
Sully was a former Air Force fighter pilot who’d spent decades flying commercial planes and specializing in crisis training. If anyone could land that plane, it was Sully.
The back of the plane hit the river first. Welsh looked out her window and was shocked to see water. Passengers ran for the rear door, and someone got it open. The back of the plane began filling with water.
“I just went crazy,” Welsh described, “and started ordering people to go to the wings . . . we never would have all made it down that aisle. So I started having people that were able to climb over the seats, I said, ‘Just make your goal get to the wings; that is our only hope. Get to the wings. We have seconds.”
The plane was evacuated in a stunning 7 minutes. Would you believe that all of these events occurred in less than 15 minutes?
Captain Sully and his crew were heroes. Happy birthday, Captain!
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Primary Sources & Further Reading:
60 Minutes: “I Was Sure I Could Do It” (Sully interview with Katie Couric; Feb. 8, 2009)
Captain Chesley B. Sullenberger, III & Jeffrey Zaslow, Highest Duty: My Search for What Really Matters (2009)
Flight 1549 Survivor (CBS News; Jan 16, 2009)
Jonathan Dienst, Flight 1549 Audio: “We're Gonna Be in the Hudson” (NBC 4 Washington; Feb. 5, 2009)
Miracle on the Hudson—Doreen Welsh former flight attendant (March 25, 2010)
Miracle on the Hudson: The Extraordinary Real-Life Story Behind Flight 1549, by the Survivors (William Prochnau & Laura Parker eds. 2010)
Pilot: 'Sickening' feeling before river landing (Associated Press; Feb. 5, 2009)
Remembering Flight 1549 (American Red Cross; Jan. 16, 2014)
Sharon Otterman & Matthew L. Wald, F.A.A. Releases Flight 1549 Tapes (Feb. 5, 2009)
Steven Otfinoski, Captain Sully's River Landing: The Hudson Hero of Flight 1549 (2019)
Timeline released of US Airways Flight 1549 (NJ.com; Apr. 02, 2019)
US Airways Flight 1549 Accident: Hearing Before the Subcommittee on Aviation of the Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, House of Representatives (111th Congress; Feb. 24, 2009)