My Turn: The US Airways Pilot on Life as a Hero

The night of the accident, after we'd safely accounted for all 155 people on the airplane, left the hospital, finally reached the hotel—the pilots' union and the NYPD whisking us away—I remember thinking that my needs were very simple. I'd lost all my belongings; I'd had the most harrowing three minutes of my life. All I really wanted was to talk to my family, and get some dry socks.

It's been a month since the airplane I piloted, US Airways Flight 1549, made an emergency landing in the Hudson River.

Since then, the attention given to me and my crew—I'm trying to resist, somewhat unsuccessfully, everyone's attempt to make this about fewer than five people—has obviously been immense. But I still don't think of myself as a celebrity. It's been a difficult adjustment, initially because of the "hero" mantle that was pushed in my direction. I felt for a long time that that wasn't an appropriate word. As my wife, Lorrie, pointed out on "60 Minutes," a hero is someone who decides to run into a burning building. This was different—this was a situation that was thrust upon us. I didn't choose to do what I did. That was why initially I decided that if someone offered me the gift of their thankfulness, I should accept it gratefully—but then not take it on as my own.

As time went by, though, I was better able to put everything in perspective and realize how this event had touched people's lives, how ready they were for good news, how much they wanted to feel hopeful again. Partly it's because this occurred as the U.S. presidency was changing hands. We've had a worldwide economic downturn, and people were confused, fearful and just so ready for good news. They wanted to feel reassured, I think, that all the things we value, all our ideals, still exist—that they're still there, even if they're not always evident.

When I was very young, my father impressed upon me that a commander is responsible for the welfare of everyone in his care. Any commander who got someone hurt because of lack of foresight or poor judgment had committed an unforgivable sin. My father was a dentist in the Navy, serving in Hawaii and San Diego from 1941 to 1945. He never saw combat, but he knew many who did. In the military, you get drilled into you the idea that you are responsible for every aspect of everyone's welfare.

During every minute of the flight, I was confident I could solve the next problem. My first officer, Jeff Skiles, and I did what airline pilots do: we followed our training, and our philosophy of life. We valued every life on that airplane and knew it was our responsibility to try to save each one, in spite of the sudden and complete failure of our aircraft. We never gave up. Having a plan enabled us to keep our hope alive. Perhaps in a similar fashion, people who are in their own personal crises—a pink slip, a foreclosure—can be reminded that no matter how dire the circumstance, or how little time you have to deal with it, further action is always possible. There's always a way out of even the tightest spot. You can survive.

Even though we had a successful outcome, it's human nature to wonder about the what-ifs. The second-guessing was much more frequent, and intense, in the first few days at night, when I couldn't sleep. It was hard to shut my brain off and get back to sleep. Sometimes I didn't, I couldn't. It was part of the posttraumatic stress that we have all felt, that each of the crew members has reported to each other.

It's funny—for the first two weeks after the accident, Jeff kept telling me, "I just want my old life back." But the other day he finally said for the first time, "You know, this is OK. I'm learning to like this. This is good." I think he's coming to terms with what's happened. He realizes that he's entitled to the attention. That he can still be true to himself. That accepting it isn't selling out.

Besides the outpouring of support from the passengers, the most touching sentiments I have received have been from other pilots. They tell me that because of the years of economic difficulties faced by the airline industry and its employees and the decreased respect for the profession, they have not felt proud to go to work—some of them for decades. Now, they tell me, they do. And they thank me for that. They thank us, the crew, because we've reminded people what all of us do every day, what's really at stake. They feel like they've regained some of the respect they'd lost.

What's next? I will return to flying for my airline—when I'm ready. I'm not sure when that will be. Probably a few months. I still haven't had many nights at home. My family and I are trying hard to remain true to ourselves and not let this change us, but there's a steep learning curve. The trajectory of our lives has changed forever. And we're determined to make good come out of this in every way that we can.

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