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“My Aircraft”

Why Sully may be the last of his kind.


Sully, as an Air Force Academy cadet, in 1973.  

Modern piloting is built on routines. Hundreds of millions of man-hours have been poured into analyzing every possible eventuality, stripping it of risk and mapping out what to do on the rare occasion when something does go wrong. On the afternoon of January 15, Chesley B. Sullenberger III was following the routine. He reported for work at La Guardia at the appointed hour. He reviewed the standard preflight data: weight and balance figures; the amount of fuel needed to get to Charlotte, North Carolina; the takeoff, climbing, and cruising speeds. A few seconds before 3:25 p.m., the tower cleared US Airways Flight 1549 for takeoff. Sully’s first officer, Jeffrey Skiles, was at the controls. They trade off, and it was his turn. Skiles hit the throttle. Sully called out the appropriate speeds. And at 3:25, they were aloft over the Bronx, headed out toward the Biggy Intersection, the navigational fix over New Jersey that steers them clear of Newark air traffic. From Biggy, they’d veer south over D.C. to North Carolina. The controller cleared them to climb to 15,000 feet. Sully acknowledged. The skies were clear and calm. For Sully, this was the last leg of a four-day workweek. It had all the makings of a milk run.

Sully saw the birds a second before they hit—at 3:27 p.m., a huge flock of them. His first impulse was to duck. He heard them connect—thump! Then he smelled them. There was no mistaking it. Every pilot with enough flight hours has smelled burning birds. There’s usually not much more to a bird strike than that—maybe a little hiccup in the hum of the engines before the plane keeps on climbing. But this was different. This time, the craft lurched, and then there was silence. Sully had probably experienced something like that long ago, as a trainee, when his instructor leaned over, shoved the throttle into idle to mimic the loss of engine power, and asked, “Okay, now what?” But this wasn’t a lesson. This was real engine failure—both engines. Sully was 3,200 feet in the air, without power, slowly falling to Earth with 150 passengers and four other crew members onboard. For the first time that day, the captain took control of the plane.

“My aircraft,” Sully said.

“Your aircraft,” said the first officer.

Pilots have rules even for falling, and Sully set about following them. He lowered the nose so the plane would glide, not drop quickly. He ordered the first officer to start into a three-page checklist of procedures for restarting both engines, even though he must have known that was hopeless. He radioed the controller to report the bird strike. “Ah, this is Cactus 1549, hit birds, we lost thrust in both engines. We’re turning back toward La Guardia.”

The controller ordered the La Guardia tower to stop all departures. “It’s 1549. Bird strike. He lost the thrust in the engines. He’s returning immediately.” It was 3:28.

Pilots are taught that if you need to ditch, you should land at the nearest practical airport. But Sully didn’t have time for that. He’d been out of power for a minute already; he’d now dropped well below 3,200 feet. The controller asked if Sully wanted to land on La Guardia’s Runway 13. Sully responded: “We’re unable. We may end up in the Hudson.” Teterboro wasn’t a possibility either. He could see the New Jersey airport out of his window and knew it was too far. The rules weren’t useful anymore. Sully had no playbook to consult, even if he’d wanted to. No pilot in modern jet aviation had ever pulled off a successful water landing. The simulators don’t even offer it as a scenario.

He turned the aircraft south from the Bronx to align himself with the river. The George Washington Bridge was straight ahead. Sully had to eyeball it the same way he’d eyeballed Teterboro, deciding if he could clear it. He did, by just 900 feet. Then he had to calculate the projected glide path, and gin up a way to set the plane on the water at just the right angle, so the nose was up and neither one of the wings tipped. If the nose or a wingtip hit the water as he approached, the plane could flip, spin out, or snap in two.

It was 3:29. Sully saw a boat on the river. He wanted to be close to that boat, so passengers could be pulled from the wreckage. He was improvising. Without the use of his engines, he maneuvered the flaps just so to control his speed—enough to minimize impact, but not so much that the plane would drop like a 50-ton rock. And with 90 seconds left, he made his first communication to the passengers of Flight 1549.

“Brace for impact.”


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