“What do you need to land?” asks the air traffic controller.
“We can’t do it. We’re going to be in the Hudson,” Capt. Sullenberger replies.
“I’m sorry? Say again,” says the controller.
“Put the flaps out,” Sullenberger says to the copilot.
“Flaps out,” the copilot repeats.
And then Flight 1549 lands on the only available runway and taxis the length of Manhattan atop the frigid waters of the Hudson River.
It was chilling; it set our hearts to racing, and our imaginations to thinking what it must have been like to be the man in charge.
And there was the man himself, Capt. Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger in the flesh, on the stage at the ASTA Global Convention in Reno.
Just 100 seconds after taking off from LaGuardia, he said, he had seen the birds, a flock of Canadian geese. Three seconds later he felt the engines grab them and pull them in, and smelled smoke.
“I felt my blood pressure shoot up, and I remember vividly three thoughts: This can’t be happening. This doesn’t happen to me. And unlike all those other flights in 42 years, this one wasn’t going to end on a runway with the aircraft undamaged.”
Doing what had to be done
A former fighter pilot in the Air Force, Sullenberger credited that rigorous flight experience with guiding him to do what had to be done. With no time to actually do the math, he envisioned the paths to the two nearest airports, LaGuardia behind him and Teterboro, NJ, to the side, and knew he could not make either one.
He did three things: “I forced calm on myself. While we had never trained for this—it’s not possible to practice a water landing—I took what I knew and I applied it to do something I had never done before. And I knew that I didn’t have time to do everything I needed to do, so I did the highest-priority items very, very well, and I ignored everything I didn’t have time to do as a distraction.”
Then he “took three or four seconds to choose my words carefully” and picked up the microphone to speak with the flight attendants and customers whose lives were literally in his hands. “I identified myself as the decision maker, and I used the words ‘brace’ and ‘impact’ to give a picture that it was going to be a hard landing.”
After 40 years in cockpits, “I knew my whole life was going to be judged by the next 208 seconds,” he said.
As the plane came to a stop, his copilot, whom he had met for the first time just three days earlier, looked over at him and said, “That wasn’t as bad as I thought it was going to be.”
Frustrated by inaction on air safety
Now a consultant on airline safety, Sullenberger chided the FAA for spending 28 months interviewing and scrutinizing and studying “every action I took,” and then not following up on 29 of the 35 recommendations that followed—including mandating that airlines provide a life vest rather than just a flotation device for every passenger. He is “disgusted by airline lobbyists who go in to delay and to kill every safety proposal” to save money.
“In spite of how safe air travel has become,” he said, “we are pushing a tube of people through the air, and we must return it safely. And we do that 28,000 times a day.” The last fatality in an airline accident was seven years ago, he said.
Still, investigators into the crash of Flight 1549 found that just 12 passengers had actually read the safety card in the seatback pocket, and only 25 had paid attention to the safety demonstration.
“Every rule we have is because someone died to give us that information,” he noted. When something goes wrong, “there is no flight attendant who will be there. It is your responsibility, your civic duty, to have the information to save your life, to know that there is a life preserver under your seat, to know the brace position. It is your civic duty and it can save your life.”
Indeed, no matter what our path, “we have a duty to acquire knowledge, to let facts guide us and not fear,” he said. And at the end of our lives—or perhaps even as we see our lives flash before our eyes—“I think we are going to be asking ourselves, ‘Did I make a difference?’ And I hope your answer is yes.”