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Hero pilot ‘Sully’ Sullenberger recalls ‘Miracle on the Hudson’ landing 10 years later

Multiple City, State, and Federal agencies conduct an investigation on Friday, January 16, 2009, at the crash site of the US Airways Airbus 320 in the Hudson River in New York.(Charles Eckert/Newsday/TNS)

He didn’t think he was going to die that day.

Not even when birds ripped through the engines that kept the hulking commercial jet in the air. Not even when he realized that the closest airports were too far away to put the crippled aircraft safely on the ground.

Not even when, in just a few seconds, really, he came up with the crazy idea of ditching the plane — filled with 155 people and thousands of gallons of jet fuel — in the middle of the Hudson River.

And not even when he pressed the intercom button and uttered the three words every pilot hates saying, and every passenger dreads hearing: “Brace for impact.”

Not even then did US Airways pilot Capt. Chesley (Sully) Sullenberger think that Jan. 15, 2009, was the day he would meet his maker.

“I never thought I was going to die that day,” Sullenberger, 67, said 10 years later, in an interview with ABC’s “Good Morning, America.”

“Even though we had never trained for this scenario,” he added. “In our flight simulators, it was not possible to practice a water landing; the only training we got for a water landing was a theoretical classroom discussion and reading a few paragraphs in a manual.

“I was confident we could find a way to solve all the many problems we faced.”

Sullenberger was in contact with air traffic controller Patrick Harten, 44, who helped clear runways at New Jersey’s Teterboro Airport to the right of the plane, and LaGuardia to the left, as the Airbus 320 lost power in both engines.

“We can’t do it,” Sullenberger calmly told him. “We’re gonna be in the Hudson.”

Harten couldn’t believe his ears, he told the Daily News.

“Part of me didn’t want to accept that,” said Harten, who was celebrating the anniversary with passengers from the flight at the Carolinas Aviation Museum in Charlotte, N.C.

“That meant to me that the plane would probably crash. I envisioned a wing tipping the water and the plane doing cartwheels. That’s what I assumed would happen. I didn’t know if he could pull off what he would pull off.

The museum is the plane’s current home.

“We like happy endings,” Harten said, praising the pilot. “Everybody likes happy endings.”

When the worst of it passed in what became known as “The Miracle on the Hudson,” when the powerless plane all but dropped anchor in the frigid water off Manhattan’s west side, Sullenberger and his underappreciated co-pilot Jeff Skiles immediately had the same reaction.

“Right before the landing, I knew that without engine thrust, and using gravity to provide the forward motion of the airplane, it was going to be a hard landing,” Sullenberger told the network.

“My thought right before we touched down was, ‘This is going to be bad.’ But when we stopped in the water and it was obvious that the airplane was intact, stable, and floating, Jeff and I turned to each other and simultaneously said, ‘That wasn’t as bad as I thought.’”

But they were weren’t out of the woods yet.

“I was deathly afraid after the landing was accomplished and we’d pulled that off that someone might slip into the water unnoticed and drown, or succumb to hypothermia,” Sullenberger, the last person off the plane, told ABC News.

“I was on pins and needles for four terrorizing hours until finally that evening — still in the hospital being evaluated — I got the word it was official, everyone was safe,” he added. “Only then could I feel the weight of the universe being lifted off my heart.”

Shortly after US Airways Flight 1549 bound for Charlotte lifted off from LaGuardia’s runway 4 at 3:24 p.m. with 150 passengers, two pilots and three flight attendants, Sullenberger made an ironic observation to Skiles.

“What a view of the Hudson today,” Sullenberger said, according to a National Transportation Safety Board transcript of the cockpit conversation.

“Yeah,” Skiles replied.

It was 20 degrees outside, but the skies were clear.

Then the conversation took a serious turn.

“Flaps up please, after takeoff checklist,” Skiles said.

“Flaps up,” Sullenberger replied. “After takeoff checklist complete.”

Then Sullenberger said the word that set the odyssey in motion.

“Birds,” screamed the pilot.

“Whoa,” said Skiles. “Oh, (expletive).”

After the flock of Canadian geese collided with the engine, a passenger said it sounded like “tennis shoes in a dryer.”

Another described a smell of burning flesh that filled the cabin.

Some screamed. Some cried. Many prayed.

Moments later, just five minutes and nine seconds after leaving the ground, the plane was in the water and floating toward New York Harbor.

Four passengers and one flight attendant were seriously injured. Everyone survived.

Sullenberger was a reluctant hero. Tom Hanks played him in the movie.

“I never thought about my family,” Sullenberger said. “I never thought about anything other than controlling the flight path and solving each problem in turn until, finally, we had solved them all.”


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