NEW YORK – It was just a few minutes after takeoff. The voice that came over the intercom was urgent, but calm.
“Brace for impact,” Capt. Chesley B. “Sully” Sullenberger III, 57, told the 150 passengers of US Airways 1549.
A veteran commercial pilot who flew fighter jets for the U.S. Air Force, Sullenberger pulled off a feat Thursday that drew grateful kudos from both high-ranking government officials and the passengers aboard the Airbus A320: safely bringing his plane down onto the icy, 65-foot-deep waters of the Hudson River.
“I believe we’ve had a miracle on the Hudson,” New York Gov. David Paterson said of the landing, executed by a veteran pilot who runs a safety consulting business on the side.
The US Airways flight had just taken off from LaGuardia Airport en route to Charlotte, N.C., when federal officials said it might have flown through a large flock of Canada geese, sucking some into its engines. As it dipped down near the George Washington Bridge and skimmed south along the edge of Upper Manhattan, scores of people watched in horror from nearby high-rises.
“It completely just hit the water full force, never bounced or anything like that, and came to a relatively quick stop,” said ABC News’ Robin Roberts, who saw the plane crash from her apartment window. “There was very little trauma to the aircraft. It was … I still … can’t believe what I saw.”
After the stricken jet made its extraordinary emergency landing on the river, a flotilla of commuter ferries, water taxis and other boats plucked all 155 passengers and crew – many shivering as they stood on the plane’s wings – to safety in as little as five minutes.
One passenger was hospitalized with two broken legs, the Associated Press reported, but no other serious injuries were reported.
By all early accounts, Sullenberger’s deft maneuvering helped turn a potentially catastrophic situation into one remarkable for its lack of casualties. After setting the aircraft down in one piece, the captain made two passes up and down the aisle to ensure all the passengers were off, then allowed rescuers to pluck him off the sinking plane.
Aviation experts said they could not recall another successful controlled water landing by a commercial airliner in the United States.
New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg dubbed his work “masterful.”
It would be difficult to find a pilot who had better credentials to handle the unusual emergency that faced Flight 1549.
Sullenberger, who lives in Danville, Calif., has more than 40 years of flying experience, the last 29 as a captain with US Airways. He has served as a local safety chairman and accident investigator for the Air Line Pilots Association International, according to his resume. He also is a certified glider pilot, CNN reported, which may have helped him bring the Airbus down gently onto the river.
Before his work as a commercial pilot, Sullenberger had a short but distinguished military career in the Air Force. He flew the F-4 fighter jet, a Vietnam War-era jet that is notoriously difficult to handle compared to modern aircraft. He was also the mission commander for Red Flag exercises, a coveted position that is usually assigned to top pilots.
“He is the consummate pilot,” his wife Lorraine Sullenberger told the New York Post.
Frank Salzmann, one of Sullenberger’s Danville neighbors, said he was not surprised to hear he was the pilot who landed the US Air jet safely, calling him a “very calm, in control and in-charge type.”
“When you think of a captain of an airline, you pretty much think of Sully,” said Salzmann, 45, a software engineer.
Two years ago, Sullenberger founded Safety Reliability Methods, an aviation safety consulting firm based in the San Francisco Bay Area. The company was created, according to its Web site, “to apply the latest advances in safety and high performance and high reliability processes to organizations in a variety of fields.”
Karlene Roberts, director of the University of California, Berkeley’s Center for Catastrophic Risk Management, said she met him two years ago, when Sullenberger contacted her about the center’s work in reliability enhancement. Roberts called him a pilot who was “at the top of his game.”
On Thursday night, as his jet lay submerged in the frigid river waters, anchored at the southern tip of Manhattan, aviation experts said Sullenberger pulled off a maneuver so rare that pilots are not taught how to execute it.
He faced an exceedingly unusual scenario: while pilots often have to contend with what they call a “bird strike,” it is uncommon for a flock to disable two engines at once, as apparently happened in this case. The plane then essentially became a 170,000-pound glider, leaving little room for error.
To turn the aircraft and then to land it without it breaking apart was “something that can’t be taught,” said Barry Schiff, a retired airline pilot who is now an aviation safety consultant in Camarillo, Calif.
“If the plane’s nose was a little higher or lower, it could have been a disaster,” he added, noting that if either wing tipped to one side and hit the water the plane would have done cartwheels down the river.
One longtime commercial pilot who has spent years as a company flight instructor warned that before dubbing Sullenberger a hero, investigators need to determine whether crew error contributed to the emergency.
The pilot, who did not want to be named, was skeptical that bird strikes shut down both engines.
“I’ve seen it happen too many times in the simulators – you get a flame-out in one engine, and the quick response is to shut down the wrong one,” the pilot said.
But Capt. Rory Kay, an active commercial pilot who serves as air safety chairman for the Air Lines Pilot Association, said he found it hard to imagine a scenario in which Sullenberger erroneously shut down a working engine if the other had been hit.
“It looks like hats off all around to the cockpit crew,” Kay said. “Ultimately, it was their response and fine, fine airmanship that enabled this to have such a happy ending.”