David Sontag, a 74-year-old screenwriter turned professor, was flying home to North Carolina on US Airways Flight 1549 after attending the funeral of his brother. From the back of the plane, in seat 23F, he had heard the bang a minute into the flight. From his window he could see flames coming out of one engine. The next five minutes were a blur of fear: the impact, the evacuation, waiting on the wing to be rescued. Before they hit the water, he said a prayer: “God, my family does not need two deaths in one week.”
Last week, Sontag wrote letters to Sully and the rest of the crew. “I tried to personalize each of them as best I can,” he says—even those to the flight attendants in the front whom he never met. In his letter to Sully, he says, he thanked the pilot “for his extraordinary skill and clear thinking and decision-making, and the calm and professionalism he exhibited.” He included words that he spoke at his brother’s funeral, back in New York: “We leave a little bit of ourselves with everybody we come in contact with.” The whole crew, Sontag says, “would live on with everybody who was on that flight—and everybody we touch with our lives.”
Sontag believes Sully did one crucial thing that day that prevented a widespread panic: He didn’t announce “Brace for impact” until it was absolutely necessary. “My feeling is he waited that long to keep people from freaking out,” Sontag says. “By saying it that close to impact, all you could do was put your head down. If that was his choice, I thought it a good one.”
Of course, Sully also might have been too busy gliding over the Hudson to keep the passengers posted. But Sontag prefers to think he was in control the entire time—that it really was his aircraft. So do we all. For many of us, faith in the captain is the only thing that gets us on a plane.