I was at work when it happened (in fact, I had just started my shift) when an acquaintance I hadn’t seen in ages told me his ex-wife, who still lives in New York, had called him to tell him: an airplane had gone down over the Hudson river.
It didn’t immediately register in my mind what my acquaintance was talking about. I was busy, and didn’t have time to engage a conversation about it. It wasn’t until nearly 11PM that night, when I finally got home, that I realized what he’d been telling me.
By then, it was clear most people only had minor injuries (except one passenger who suffered two broken legs), no one had died, and the pilot was the biggest hero of the day, in a harbor full of selfless, quick-thinking heroes.
In case you don’t know the details, let me give you a quick rundown of the events that led to an Airbus A-320 ditching in the waters of one of the busiest waterways in America.
Flight 1549 from New York to North Carolina took off from La Guardia airport at 15:24 (3:24PM) Thursday, January 14th. Barely one minute later, six miles out of the airport and at approximately 2000 feet of altitude, Sullenberger reports a bird strike to both engines, which then flamed for a time (according to passenger reports), then died. Sullenberger asks to return to the airport. ((Newsday, Timeline of US Airways flight 1549)) Reportedly, the control tower suggested he try making Teterboro instead. Keep in mind that at this point, the Airbus is nothing but a 35 ton glider. Sullenberger, his co-pilot, 3 crew members, and 150 other people are gliding at 232 mph over one of the most heavily congested regions in the United States. He makes an important decision: he’s not going to make Teterboro, but there is a nice expanse of relatively smooth, clear water nearby, and he decides at least, if he can’t ditch correctly, he doesn’t have to take out buildings where unsuspecting innocents would be doomed in a crash.
Less than 5 minutes after takeoff, flight 1549 disappears from the radar screens and lands on the Hudson river.
As you can see, this proves to be executed with textbook precision.
Throughout all this and later, as Sullenberger is being interviewed by NTSB officials, he remained cool, calm and collected, a testament to his strength, training, and leadership. His story comes at precisely the right time, a welcome distraction from all that is going wrong in our country and around the world, and a beautiful anchor to what Barack Obama is likely to discuss in his Inaugural Speech in just two days.
In aviation, any landing from which you can walk away is defined as a “perfect landing”. In dire circumstances, it takes a particularly special pilot to ensure such a result, one who has “the right stuff”. There can be no doubt that Chesley Sullenberger has “it”, and I salute him for it.