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The Right Stuff

Eight of us were in Airbus recurrent class.  Eight very senior and experienced Airbus pilots were attempting to stay awake as the instructor reviewed procedures that we all had reviewed numerous times before.  Several guys had cell phones with them in the vibrate mode in case family members had to get in touch.  Suddenly a couple of the phones began to vibrate.  After checking his phone, one guy announced that he had a text message notifying him that a plane was down in the Hudson River near New York's Laguardia Airport.  Things got really quiet as he made the call to get further information.  We were all undoubtedly thinking, hoping, that it was some small private plane.  We were all likewise thinking, praying, that it was not one of ours.  After a short conversation, he confirmed that one of ours, flight 1549, was down in the Hudson.  The air left the room.  I felt as if someone had kicked me in the stomach.   By then nearly all of us had received voice mails as friends and family had called to check on us , and a couple of others left the room to return calls.  The instructor immediately connected to the internet and projected the image on the screen in the front.  Almost immediately the image of a USAirways aircraft, partially submerged in the water, appeared on the screen.  It was a sickening sight.  Upon seeing the image, I immediately had two thoughts:  1) the hulled looked intact, 2) maybe some survived.  Then we heard that there were 148 passengers; that meant that there were only two seats left open.  To me that meant that there would be several fatalities in the best of circumstances.  We sat there and watched the harrowing images on the screen for several minutes, and as we watched, the news got better and better.  Initial reports began to filter in that there were several survivors; and indeed, we saw some of the survivors getting onto the rescue boats.  One guy seemed to be celebrating his survival and smiling at the screen.  Of course, ultimately we learned the full extent of the miracle, that everyone on the airplane had survived the river landing.  Usairways breathed a huge sigh of relief.

I cannot fully convey the relief and thankfullness of every USAirways' employee when we finally learned that everyone survived.  To an employee of USAirways, especially the pilots, this incident immediately brought to mind the horrible crash of Flight 427 near Pittsburgh on September 8, 1994.  Over 130 people lost their lives in that accident, (the captain was a close personal friend) and it has left a permanent scar on all of us.  But this one will not hurt like that one, thanks to the efforts of the flight crew, the cabin crew, and the emergency response personnel.  Many, many folks played a part in the successful outcome of this scenario. 

Captain Chelsey B. "Sully" Sullenberger rightly deserves most of the credit.  After loosing power in both engines when he encountered a flock of geese shortly after takeoff, he apparently made all of the right decisions.  He immediately knew that he was not going far, and after briefly contemplating a landing at the airport in Teterboro, New Jersey, decided that he would not have the power to get that far.  That left the Hudson River as the only place to put it down.  He then basically "dead-sticked" it as smoothly as humanly possible onto the river.  The very fact that the aircraft did not break up on landing speaks volumes to both Capt. Sullenberger's skill as well as to the integrity of the Airbus airplane. 

I do not know Capt. Sullenberger personally.  Like myself, he is a former Air Force pilot, and we are very close to the same seniority; thus I have never had the honor of working with him.  He is from all accounts, a quality person and a professional pilot of the highest sort.  We are all very thankful that he was there, and that he was ready for the challenge that faced him.  I have worked with First Officer Jeff Skiles, who found himself in the cockpit with Capt. Sullenberger as they left Laguardia Airport yesterday on the last leg of their four-day trip.  Undoubtedly they were both tired, red-eyed, and ready to get home.  That was not the way it turned out, and though you will hear about Capt. Sullenberger's heroics, I assure you that First Officer Skiles deserves every bit as much acclaim.  If I were to face just such a challenge, First Officer Skiles would be high on the list of the co-pilots I would want with me.  I am sure that he was a superb professional, an invaluable aide, and that Capt. Sullenberger will agree that he is glad that First Officer Skiles sat beside him in his time of trial.  Way to go, Jeff!

The flight attendants also proved their professionalism and bravery during this experience.  Many consider their jobs mundane and unimportant.  I daresay that there are 148 thankful passengers today who may very well think of them in a somewhat different light.  Well done Sheila Dail, Doreen Walsh, and Donna Dent!  You got every single passenger in your charge out of that aircraft safely.  You girls must have been paying attention during those many recurrent training sessions that you attended in years past.

All of us who have reached this point in our careers (I have over 20,000 hours of flight time; Capt Sullenberger has over 19,000 hours) have spent countless hours training for a wide variety of emergency situations.  We do have procedures for water landings; we have trained for that.  However, as a practical matter, it is very difficult to practice putting an Airbus down on the Hudson River.  Capt. Sullenberger was ready.  Would the rest of us have been ready for that?  I would like to think that we would have been, but one thing I know for sure,  Captain Sullenberger and First Officer Skiles were ready; on January 15, 2009 they had "the right stuff."  Thank the Good Lord that they did, and that He was with them!


Fly/Drive Safely

16 January 2009



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