Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger was the US Airways captain who guided his Airbus A320 into the Hudson River on January 15, 2009, after a flock of Canada geese knocked out both engines. Together with the majority of my colleagues, I have the utmost respect for Captain Sullenberger. But that’s just it: respect. It’s not adoration, and I’ve always been disappointed at how the media and, more recently, Hollywood have managed to glamorize and misrepresent what happened that day. As the public has been led to understand it, Sully saved the lives of everybody on board through nerves of steel and superhuman flying skills. The truth isn’t quite so romantic.
I was getting a haircut (what’s left of it) one afternoon, not long after the accident, when Nick the barber asked what I did for a living. Almost any talk of piloting at some point turns to the saga of Sully-upon-Hudson, and this was no exception. Nick grew starry-eyed. “Man, that was something,” he said. “How did the guy land on the water like that?” Nick wasn’t looking for a literal answer, but I gave him one anyway. “Pretty much the same way he’d landed 12,000 other times in his career,” was my response. There was silence after that, which I took to mean that Nick was either silently impressed or thinking “what an asshole.”
I was exaggerating but eager to make a point: that the how-to of gliding into water isn’t especially difficult. The straightforwardness of water landings is one of the reasons pilots don’t even train for them in simulators. Another reason is that having to land in water will always be the byproduct of something inherently more dreadful—a fire, multiple engine failure, or some other catastrophic malfunction. That is the crux of the emergency, not the resultant landing.
When the ill-fated jet took off from New York’s La Guardia airport, first officer Jeffrey Skiles had been at the controls. When the engines quit, at a little more than 2,000 feet, captain Sullenberger took over. (There’s no reason a copilot can’t continue flying in an emergency, but in this case most of the primary instruments on Skiles’ side of the cockpit failed from loss of power. Sullenberger took the controls because, really, he had to.)
Determining a place to land was urgent to say the least. A turn-back to La Guardia was deemed too risky, as was continuing westward toward Teterboro Airport in New Jersey. The choice, then, was either a crash landing in the middle of one of the most built-up cities in the world, or a ditching in the ice-cold Hudson. The latter was hardly ideal, but it was clearly the better option and would have to do.
From there, Sullenberger would adjust the plane’s pitch to maintain an optimal glide speed. The trickiest part of the whole thing would be calculating the correct speed and altitude to begin the flare — when to pitch the nose up and break the descent. Flare too early and the plane could stall or drop hard into the water. Keeping the wings level would also be critical, lest the plane flip, roll inverted, or otherwise break up, with certain loss of life.
Well done. Just the same, I’m uneasy at calling anyone a hero. Nothing they did was easy, and a successful outcome was by no means guaranteed. But they did what they had to do, what they were trained to do, and what, presumably, any other crew would have done in that same situation.
And seldom has the role of luck been adequately acknowledged. Flight 1549 was stricken in daylight, and in reasonably good weather that allowed the crew to visually choose a landing spot. Had the engines quit on a day with low visibility, or over a crowded part of the city beyond gliding distance to the river, the result was going to be an all-out catastrophe. No amount of skill would matter. They needed to be good, but they needed to be lucky, too. They were both.
Sullenberger, to his credit, has been duly humble, acknowledging the points I make above. People pooh-pooh this as false modesty or self-effacing charm, when really he’s just being honest. He also has highlighted the unsung role played by his first officer. There were two pilots on board, and both needed to rise to the occasion. And let’s not forget the flight attendants, whose actions were no less commendable.
There’s little harm in celebrating the survival of 155 people, but terms like “hero” and “miracle” shouldn’t be thrown around lightly. A miracle describes an outcome that cannot be rationally explained. Everything that happened on January 15th, 2009, can be rationally explained. Passengers owe their survival not to the supernatural, but to four very earthly factors. They were, in descending order (pardon the pun): luck, professionalism, skill, and technology.
A hero, meanwhile, describes a person who accepts a great personal sacrifice, up to and including injury or death, for the benefit of somebody else. I’d never suggest that Sullenberger and Skiles were merely “doing their jobs.” It was far beyond that. But I didn’t see heroics; I saw an outstanding execution of difficult tasks in the throes of a serious emergency.
And there’s a longstanding unfairness to the whole pilots-as-heroes thing that gets under my skin. Over the years, there have been countless aviators who, confronted by sudden and harrowing danger, performed admirably, with just as much skill and resolve as can ever be hoped for. But they weren’t as lucky. By virtue of this and nothing more, they and many of their passengers perished.
And if we’re going to lavish praise on men like Sullenberger, who did not perish, what of the others like him whose stories you’ve likely never heard, mainly because their planes didn’t come splashing down alongside the world’s media capital.
I give you Al Haynes, the United Airlines captain who, ably assisted by three other pilots, deftly guided his crippled DC-10 to a crash landing in Sioux City, Iowa, in 1989. A disintegrated engine fan had bled out all three of the plane’s hydraulics systems, resulting in a total loss of flight controls. Using differential engine power to perform turns, all the while battling uncontrollable pitch oscillations, that Haynes and his crew were able to pull off even a semi-survivable landing (112 people were killed; 184 survived) is about as close to a miracle as you can get.
How about Donald Cameron and Claude Ouimet, the pilots of Air Canada flight 797, who managed — barely — to get their burning DC-9 onto the runway in Cincinnati in 1987? It took so much effort to fly the plane that they passed out from exhaustion after touchdown.
A pilot would take a daylight ditching in a river over either of those, no question.
Or consider the predicament facing American Eagle Captain Barry Gottshall and first officer Wesley Greene three months earlier. Moments after takeoff from Bangor, Maine, their Embraer regional jet suffered a freak system failure resulting in full and irreversible deflection of the plane’s rudder. Struggling to maintain control, they returned to Bangor under deteriorating weather. Visibility had fallen to a mile, and as the 37-seater approached the threshold, Gottshall had to maintain full aileron deflection — that is, the control wheel turned to the stops and held there—to keep from yawing into the woods. Theirs was pure seat-of-the-pants improv. A fully deflected rudder? There are no checklists for that one.
In 2016, Clint Eastwood gave us a movie called Sully. All well and good, but why don’t we have a Haynes or a Cameron or a Gottshall movie? How about a John Testrake movie, or one about Bernard Dhellemme? Google them if you need to; their stories are even more incredible than the ones above.
I could go on, but let’s stop there. If you insist on a hero, I suspect there are more to pick from than you thought.
The following correction was printed in the Guardian's Corrections and clarifications column, Monday 15 February 2010
Flight 1549's landing in the Hudson River last year was said to be the only case in history of an emergency landing on water in which all passengers and crew survived. Other cases involving fair-sized aeroplanes have been reported. Among the most authoritative was a 1964 account in Flight International of a Tupolev-124 from Estonia that landed the previous year on the river Neva near (then) Leningrad, with all 52 people on board surviving.
Last month Pam Seagle found herself for the second time in a year bobbing up and down in the middle of the Hudson river as it flows past New York. As if experiencing deja vu, she saw her breath emerge in clouds in the crisp cold air. She watched transfixed from the ferry, as the setting sun bathed the Manhattan skyline in an orange glow.
Her first experience of being in the middle of the Hudson, exactly a year before, had taken her right into its icy waters. She vividly remembers jumping into the river and the peculiar sensation that coursed through her body before she blacked out. "There was something redemptive about the cold water," she says.
It was 15 January 2009, shortly after 3.30pm. Seagle, now 42, an executive with Bank of America, was one of the 155 people on board US Airways Flight 1549 from New York's La Guardia airport to her home town, Charlotte in North Carolina. Seconds into the flight, the plane struck a flock of Canada geese, cutting out both engines, turning the Airbus A320 into a glider and giving Seagle and her fellow passengers front-row seats in a drama that has acquired near-mythic status under its sobriquet "the Miracle on the Hudson".
Flight 1549, the only case in history of an emergency landing on water in which all passengers and crew survived, has turned the pilot, Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger, into an international superstar. He has had his memoirs published, been hailed a Time magazine Top 100 Hero, had honours showered upon him at the Super Bowl and been stalked by numerous film crews.Hudson river plane crash survivor John Howell with his wife Allison – who wasn't on the plane.
Away from the Sully circus, far from the TV cameras, the lives of the 150 passengers on board the plane have also been affected in profound ways. Over the last 12 months they have absorbed the truth of what it is to be a survivor, to have been braced for imminent and certain death, yet live to tell the tale.
John Howell, an accountant, was sitting in seat 2D at the front of the plane on his way home from a business meeting in New York. A year on, he still finds it hard to put into words the impact of the crash. "You cannot fully appreciate what it feels to be sitting there looking out of the window and be 100% confident that this is your last day, these are your last moments."
People in near-death experiences, so the cliche goes, see their lives flash before their eyes. But Howell recalls none of that. He can only remember the anger. As the plane glided towards the river, heading south in the direction of downtown Manhattan, he was consumed by a cruel irony. His brother, a fireman, had died on 9/11 in the World Trade Centre, just a little further downstream.
"It was bad enough for my parents to endure the loss of one son, but to lose me too, just a few blocks away from the World Trade Centre, in a plane, it seemed outrageous. I was livid."
As the river rose up to meet them, Howell braced himself for impact, just as Captain Sullenberger instructed him to. The plane shook as the tail dipped into the water, then jerked violently to the left and spun round. He thought it was about to explode and that he was a dead man.
But it didn't, and he wasn't.
He exited through the front right exit and got into an inflatable float. After the initial panic had passed, he was overcome by awe and bewilderment at what had happened.
"When you look at the sequence of events, everything had to be perfect for us to survive. There was the pilot, obviously, and his flawless landing, but there were many other factors too. There was no wind, no ice, no boats in the river. It would be virtually impossible to replicate those conditions.
"So I thought, 'Wow! How did that come about? How come I'm alive? How did this miraculous thing happen?'"
Such questions have left him with a much more positive outlook. Life's small irritants and disappointments now seem trivial; he refuses to let them perturb him as they used to.
Other passengers on the plane have felt similarly – that since the crash their lives have become more essential, less dragged down by daily encumbrances. A work colleague of Howell's, who was sitting with him on Flight 1549, has hung a photograph of the water-bound plane prominently on a wall in his office. On the bottom of the picture he has printed the word "perspective".
In the weeks following the crash, the survivors were drawn to one other. They call themselves "1549ers", and feel as if they are members of a rare club – only they can understand the extreme trauma that they have been through.Fellow 1549ers Laura Zych and Ben Bostic, who are now a couple.
Slowly, organically and with no outside involvement or help, they began to coalesce. First, the 1549ers started to contact each other by email to check their fellow passengers were OK. A Yahoo group was formed for the surviving passengers, and they began to hold internet chats, therapy sessions in which they swapped notes on how they were faring and tips on how to cope.
Then spontaneous reunions were held, usually in Charlotte, where many of the passengers lived, or in New York. They called the reunions "celebrate life parties" and revelled in the second chance they had been given.
The biggest reunion so far was the anniversary of the crash last month. That's when Seagle, together with about two-thirds of her fellow 1549ers, found themselves once more bobbing around in the Hudson.
"I had reservations about going; I was hesistant," Seagle says. "But as we sat on a ferry in the river my anxieties disappeared. I was surrounded by all my new friends."
Another social tick emerged. So many survivors felt that their lives had begun anew, almost as if they had been born again, that they enshrined the thought in a ritual. When a passenger's birthday came up, they would hold a party and call it their "first", as in their first birthday since the crash.
In Laura Zych's case the social bond extended to forging a relationship with one of her fellow 1549ers, Ben Bostic. He had been sitting three rows behind her on the plane, and had noted her with some interest as they had been queuing up to board. In the mayhem of the crash they had become separated and were put on different rescue boats, and it was not until several weeks later that Bostic, 38, and Zych, 30, met for the first time. It was at one of the "celebrate life" nights in Charlotte. They ended up talking on the porch until dawn, and have been together ever since.
Bostic says that their relationship is unlike any that he's known. "We don't take anything for granted. We both want to live in the moment, and that's healthy for us."
Some of the passengers suffered severe trauma after the crash. Paul Jorgensen recalls in a new book of survivors' tales that the 1549ers have compiled themselves, Miracle on the Hudson, that for a week after the landing he cried uncontrollably. He couldn't sleep for five nights. Then something clicked in him. "I said to myself, 'Hey, this is a positive thing. This is a happy story. You were tested.'"
Other passengers, far being traumatised, were elated. "After the crash there was a little bit of invincibility," says Seagle. "A feeling I could do anything, I could walk in front of a bus. I survived a plane crash. On water. How many people can say that?"
Bostic found his self-confidence soar. "What I took away from it was that I'd better be more confident, I'd better go after what I wanted, as tomorrow may not be here." As a symbol of his new determination, he had a tattoo drawn across his upper back. It says "survivor".
Some 1549ers have been so emboldened by the impact of the crash they have overturned their working lives. Overnight, Lori Lightner quit her job as a manager in a chain of retail stores, downsized and began volunteering for the Red Cross. "It's not important to me whether anyone shops for T-shirts and dresses," she says. "I got a call from a job recruiter, who told me he can pay me twice as much as I used to make. I told him, 'Where you are located is colder than the Hudson River.' Money is not important."
"Everyone on that flight feels they were given a second opportunity," agrees Seagle, "and we all struggle with the need to do something with it. Should I leave my job? Should I devote myself to charity? We must redeem our lives, we must make sure we don't waste the gift we've been given."Hudson River plane crash survivor Pam Seagle (right) with her son Cameron and her sister Jennifer Evans.
After the crash, she drew much closer to her younger sister, Jennifer Evans. "We had always been close but some things we had never shared together. After the crash, we talked a lot about how we wanted the future to be. We articulated how much we loved each other."
Amid the elation and renewed purpose that gripped the 1549ers in the weeks after the Hudson landing, there were dark moments too. On 12 February, less than a month after the crash, 50 people were killed when Flight 3407 went down near Buffalo in upstate New York as a result of pilot error.
Zych remembers waking that morning and seeing the headline on the computer. "A wave of sadness came over me and I started crying. Why did I survive while those 50 people didn't?" Later she logged on to the 1549er Yahoo group, and found many other survivors were equally distraught. "It was devastating, for all of us," she says.
Seagle's dark moment was more personal. On 21 June, five months after the crash, her sister Jennifer fell suddenly sick with an aneurism. Within hours she was dead. "I remember walking into the hospital and thinking this was backwards. I truly could not understand it. I was the one who was supposed to be gone," Seagle says.
She was confused, angry. Over time, she has come to a religious conclusion to explain the baffling hand that she has been dealt. God, she now believes, was already planning to take her sister at the time of the Hudson crash, and decided he couldn't take both sisters from one family in a single year. "That's my articulation, anyway," she says.
The survivors of Flight 1549 have all, in their own way, taken something from the experience of that exceptional day. For Howell it is to think positively. "Even in my very worst day, when everything seems to be going wrong, it doesn't come close to having both engines go down and burst into flames, then landing in a river."
For Zych it is gratitude. "Sometimes it is overwhelming – we are so lucky to have been given a second chance to do things right."
For her new partner Bostic it is to be true to himself. "The best way I can describe it is, I've become a better me."
And for Seagle, who lived only for her sister to die, it is love. "I know it sounds trite," she says. "But you must tell the people you love how much they mean to you. Anything can change in a moment."
Miracle on the Hudson: The Survivors of Flight 1549 Tell Their Extraordinary Stories of Courage, Faith, and Determination is published by Ballantine Books