Chesley Sullenberger, often called “Sully” by those that know him, performed the perfect emergency water landing on the Hudson River, between Manhattan and the New Jersey water border, in New York on January 15, 2009 (“Captain “Sully” Sullenberger”). At the time, his plane was impaired by striking a flock of geese about five minutes into their initial departure from LaGuardia Airport, after just a few miles away. The aircraft carried 155 passengers plus crew, all of which came out of the landing unscathed.
This sample essay from Ultius will elaborate on how flight controllers told him he should be able to make it back to the airport, but Sullenberger relied on his over forty years of experience and knew that the best choice for the safety of all, was to land in the Hudson. That historic day, Sully was the pilot in command flying an Airbus A320, on its way from New York bound to Charlotte-Douglas International Airport in North Carolina (Pasztor). The flight had dual designations and was both United Airways, flight 1549, and United Airlines, flight 1919.
What happened on flight 1549
Minutes after takeoff, the experienced pilot advised traffic control that they had struck a large group of birds, and that both engines had been disabled. Not too long afterward, passengers saw that the left engine had caught on fire. Sullenberger spoke with air traffic control about his limited options at the time. Conceivably, he could either return to LaGuardia Airport, or try his luck getting to nearby Teterboro Airport, in New Jersey. Yet, the pilot made an immediate decision that an emergency landing on the Hudson was, in fact, the only choice available (Pasztor).
Sullenberger prepared his passengers and crew to brace for impact, then glided the craft into a parked position on the Hudson’s surface at 3:30 (Associated Press). Sully praised the efforts of his co-pilot First Officer Jeff Skiles, and referred to the pair as a team. The pair worked together in absolute silence, since by this point, both engines had been disabled. Sullenberger later described that he had selected the particular landing site, because he could see boats that would be able to help with the passenger rescue quickly. Attendants described the landing as a hard touchdown, but with only one hit and no bounce, as the craft began to decelerate (Associated Press).
Sully’s response to the danger
Like the hero that he was, Vanity Fair reporter William Langwiesche notes, Sullenberger walked the entire passenger cabin calling out at potential remaining passengers, to make sure that no one had been left on the plane. He then retrieved his maintenance logbook, and was the last to leave the plane’s interior. All passengers and crew successfully evacuated the cabin of the partially submerged sinking plane. Watercraft had been quickly informed by the controllers and commandeered to rescue the stranded passengers who were standing on the aircraft’s wings, including the use of the very familiar Circle Line Sightseeing Tour ferry that had just dropped off tourists.
Some passengers suffered injuries, most minor. None had to remain in a hospital more than one day. The historic event became known as the Miracle on the Hudson. Every United Airways flight member was awarded the Master’s Medal of the Guild of Air Pilots and Air Navigators, for their heroism and bravery in the face of such extreme circumstances. Kitty Higgins of the National Transportation Safety Board said that the event was “the most successful ditching in aviation history” (Langewiesche).
Other notable ditching events in aviation history
- 1963, U.S.S.R: Aeroflot Tu124 ran out of fuel and landed in the Neva River. All 52 passengers survived.
- 1970, St. Croix: ALM DC9-33CF missed it’s initial approach, and ran out of fuel. The plane sunk in one mile deep water. 22 passengers out of 57 were killed.
- 1996, Comoros Islands: Ethiopian Airlines 767-200ER was hijacked and ditched near a beach. 117 out of 160 passengers were killed along with the hijackers (Airsafe).
How Sullenberger assisted the passengers on flight 1549
Sullenberger was the ultimate professional, as described by all who underwent the experience. He was calm and poised, and showed a level of confidence that helped the passengers to feel better about their circumstance (Langewiesche). There was a feeling of calm when the situation could’ve been an absolute disaster in the air. When talking about the few seconds before the actual landing he said:
that the moments before the crash were “the worst sickening, pit-of-your-stomach, falling-through-the-floor feeling” that he had ever experienced. Speaking with news anchor Katie Couric, Sullenberger said: “One way of looking at this might be that for 42 years, I’ve been making small, regular deposits in this bank of experience, education and training. And on January 15 the balance was sufficient so that I could make a very large withdrawal (Rigden).
Jeff Skiles reported that the bird strike was so extensive, while some of the birds were destroying their engines, other dark brown birds were hitting the windshield with quite a thud (Associated Press 2). Sullenberger took over the controls while Skiles reviewed the emergency procedures for trying to get the engines to turn back on, but to no avail. Air traffic control was contacted with the report,
“Hit birds. We’ve lost thrust on both engines. We’re turning back towards LaGuardia” (“15 January 2009 – US Airways 1549”).
Traffic controller Patrick Harten working departures, directed the tower to stop all departures to allow Flight 1549 to have clear passage to land upon their return. Sullenberger advised that they could not make it back. They talked about the possibility of Tetterboro in New Jersey, and the controller called the airport which granted landing rights, but Sullenberger advised that they could not make it and they were going to have to land on the Hudson (“Chesley Sullenberger”).
What few have discussed is the fact that Flight 1549 passed just 900 feet above the George Washington Bridge, ninety seconds before they actually touched down, which means, if they had hit that point ninety seconds before, the plane would have crashed into one of the busiest and largest double decker suspension bridges in New York, which carries thousands of people to New Jersey or New York daily. Sullenburger was able to avoid a catastrophe in a city that was still feeling the effects of the September 11th attacks, just 8 years prior.
Evacuation of flights 1549
Once the plane ditched in the Hudson, Sullenberger opened the cockpit and told the passengers to evacuate (Langewiesche). One hundred and fifty passengers discharged from the cabin and walked onto the aircraft’s wings mid cabin though the window exits. Strong plastic inflatable slides that could convert into a life raft held passengers from the right passenger door in the front of the plane. The inflatable slide on the left front of the craft did not perform as expected.
During the evacuation process, the noticeably submerged airplane drifted to the south with the current. The three flight attendants were in different locations on the plane, one was in the rear and two were in the front. A frightened passenger inappropriately opened a rear cabin door which caused frigid water to fill the cabin faster than it would have had they left it closed. The rear side attendant attempted to close the door, but could not do so against the increasing water pressure.
The fuselage had been severely damaged from the hard touchdown, ripping a hole in the plane’s underbelly. The rear of the plane was sinking rapidly because the cargo doors had popped along with the added pressure from the door opened by the passenger. Travelers were requested to move to the front by climbing over the seats to avoid the water filled aisles. Making matters more urgent, there was a passenger aboard in a wheelchair. Sullenberger walked through the plane, front to back, to ensure everyone had been evacuated. One of the passengers who had helped to evacuate the travelers, found that there was no more room on the wing, so he jumped into the frigid January 36 °F water and swam to one of the rescue boats (Langewiesche).
The Rescue of flight 1549
Robert Smith of NPR reported that there was a massive assemblage of rescue ferryboats, and other watercraft from the Coast Guard, the New York Police Department, and the New York Fire Department ready to assist in the rescue. The first vessel to arrive on the scene was the Thomas Jefferson from the NY Waterway Company, next to arrive was the Governor Thomas H. Kean, another NY Waterway ferry, operated by a 20-year old woman. The captain indicated that they used a Jason’s cradle, a form of rescue netting, used in man over board situations, to help people to climb on board the vessel. The next to arrive was a ferry from Circle Line Sightseeing Cruises.
The Thomas Jefferson arrived just four minutes after the plane ditched. The passengers on the wing were rescued first because the inflatable slides were deemed to offer more safety. The inflatable slides separated from the plane and became rafts and at one point passengers had to yell at the captain to steer the ferry in the other direction because it looked like they were going to be crushed by the stern. Not too long thereafter, the Police, Fire Department and Coast Guard vessels were on scene. All were rescued safely. There was no shortage of help available – rescue divers were on scene, as well. On land, EMS units, 35 ambulances, firefighters, police squad cars, helicopters, medical help, water taxis and vessels were available to help (Smith).
Sully’s struggle with post traumatic stress disorder after the event on flight 1549
In the aftermath of the Miracle on the Hudson, Sullenberger described that he was experiencing post traumatic stress disorder (Parker). Post traumatic stress disorder, often referred to as PTSD, is a condition, that can sometimes be temporary, and sometimes chronic. Symptoms include anxiety, nightmares and flashbacks usually triggered by experiencing a traumatic event. Some people find themselves becoming depressed according to The National Institute on Mental Health.
Sully stated that his blood pressure which was usually 108 over 60 went up as high as 160 over 100 and did not move for ten weeks. The decorated pilot said that he found that he was unable to sleep the entire night, and was lucky if he could get a good 45 minutes under his belt. Sullenberger said that it took him a number of months before he returned to his normal sleeping pattern. He eventually was able to overcome the experience, but it took him a really long time. Sully said that he found that the way to overcome it was to give the situation thought, talk about it as much as possible, and he even found writing about it to be helpful. He stated that he is now working with veterans at the Veterans Administration to try to give aid to others suffering from the same condition, hoping that sharing his experience would help others (“Connecting Our Veterans”).
Chesley Sullenberger’s early years
Sullenberger was born in Denison, Texas, and demonstrated his love of aviation by attending the United States Air Force Academy (“Biography”). While in his last year at the academy, he received the prestigious Outstanding Cadet in Airmanship Award, a precursor to his amazing future to come. He graduated with a bachelor’s degree in psychology. He attended Purdue University where he earned his master’s in industrial psychology. Later, he attended the University of Northern Colorado, where he obtained a second master’s degree in public administration. Purdue granted him an honorary Doctorate of Letters (“Chesley Sullenberger”).
Sullenberger became a fighter pilot for the United States Air Force serving from 1975 through 1980 (“Biography”). While there, he flew F-4 Phantom II jets from the Vietnam War era. His career progressed and he became a training officer and a flight leader, soon becoming a captain. While active in the air force, Sullenberger spent time stationed in Europe and in Nevada at Nellis Air Force Base. A skilled pilot, Sully became the Red Flag exercises mission commander, where pilots obtained high level aerial combat training. He also became part of an aircraft accident investigations board. His air force career complete, he joined Pacific Southwest Airlines, which was acquired by US Airways in 1989. He remained with the company until he retired in March 2010 (“Biography”).
Safety was always important to Sullenberger and he advocated for airline and pilot safety through his career (“Biography”). During his years in the air force, Sullenberger acted as an accident investigator, among his many duties. Afterward, he represented the Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA) at a National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) investigation. He helped with the creation of the US Airways Crew Resource Management course, and introduced it to many airline crew members through the years (“Chesley Sullenberger”).
The key take away from this sample essay from Ultius, is that Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger is a real American hero. His actions saved every single passenger on that plane that day, and thanks to the help of those in ferries, and the first responders who scooped up passengers, this story is now one of optimism. Normally, stories of planes making a crash landing, even in water, don’t turn out with such a fortunate outcome. Sullenberger used his expertise and professionalism to turn into a hero. Sometimes, we could all use a hero. Let the professionals here at Ultius be your hero, when you need help with your writing. Let our expertise and professionalism work for you.
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Associated Press 2. “Controller: Ditching Jet in River Spelled Doom.” NBC News. NBC Universal Media, LLC. 24 February 2009. Web. 30 August 2016.
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“Captain “Sully” Sullenberger joins CBS News.” CBS News. CBS Interactive, Inc. 19 May 2011. Web. 30 August 2016.
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Langewiesche, William. “Anatomy of a Miracle.” Vanity Fair. Conde Nast. 5 May 2009. Web 30 August 2016.
Parker, Adam. “Life after the landing: Hero pilot Sullenberger, wife to speak in February.” Post and Courier. The Post and Courier, an Evening Post Industries company. 17 December 2011. Web 30 August 2016.
Pasztor, Andy “Hudson Miracle’ Gets Closer Look.” The Wall Street Journal. Dow Jones & Co. 4 May 2010. Web 30 August 2016.
“Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.” National Institute of Mental Health. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. n. d. Web. 30 August 2016.
Rigden, Pam. “How to Build Resilience Quickly and Easily.” LinkedIn. 23 November 2015. Web 30 August 2016.
Smith, Robert. “Ferry Boats Used In US Airways Rescue.” NPR. 15 January 2009. Web 30 August 2016.
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