Pilot, Crew Recall Splashdown

Associated Press
Monday, February 9, 2009

NEW YORK, Feb. 8 -- The pilot who ditched a jetliner in the Hudson River, saving everyone on board, said he had a "sickening" feeling when a flock of geese disabled both engines with violent thuds, crippling the plane at 3,000 feet over the nation's largest city.

Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger said in an interview with CBS's "60 Minutes" that the birds' impact "sounded like the worst thunderstorm I'd ever heard growing up in Texas."

The interview with Sullenberger and the other four crew members, broadcast Sunday, was their first since US Airways Flight 1549 landed in the frigid water Jan. 15.

After the bird strike killed both engines, Sullenberger took control of the plane from his first officer and glided it to safety. But in the aftermath of the emergency landing, he said, he lay awake at night second-guessing himself, even though all 155 people aboard survived. "The first few nights were the worst," he said. "When the 'what ifs' started."

He said he no longer regrets his actions that day, calling his decision to land in the river "the only viable alternative" to attempting a return to La Guardia Airport or landing at Teterboro Airport in New Jersey.

"The only level, smooth place sufficiently large to land an airliner was the river," he said, recalling that the plane had no thrust and was "descending rapidly."

The former Air Force fighter pilot, who has flown commercial planes for nearly three decades, said he knew he had to touch down with the wings level and the nose slightly up "at a descent rate that was survivable."

"Did you, at any point, pray?" CBS's Katie Couric asked.

"I would imagine somebody in back was taking care of that for me while I was flying the airplane," he said.

The flight attendants said they did not know they were landing in the water until it happened. "When I got out of my seat and saw that water, it was the most shocked I've ever been in my life," said Doreen Welsh. She said she then "went crazy" and started yelling and pushing people to get them out because the impact tore a hole in the plane's tail and water poured into the cabin.

"And as I was getting up, I thought I might actually live," she said. " 'Cause a second ago, I thought I was gone."

Ferry boats appeared within minutes to take the 150 passengers and five crew members to safety.

When Sullenberger got official confirmation that everyone had survived, "I felt like the weight of the universe had been lifted off my heart," he said.

The crew met some of the passengers and their relatives at a reunion in Charlotte, the destination of Flight 1549.

"More than one woman came up to me and said, 'Thank you for not making me a widow,' " Sullenberger said. " 'Thank you for allowing my 3-year-old son to have a father.' "

The flight crew was expected to receive the keys to New York City on Monday from Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg.

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