'Sully' Sullenberger Remembers the Miracle on the Hudson

Passengers and crew are rescued from the slowly sinking US Airways Flight 1549 after the plane made an emergency landing on the Hudson River on January 15, 2009. Before the police and the U.S. Coast Guard arrived on the scene, the first rescuers were a handful of ferries that offer visitors tours and shuttle commuters between New Jersey and Manhattan. Eric Thayer/Reuters/Newscom

On January 15, 2009, Captain Chesley Burnett "Sully" Sullenberger and First Officer Jeffrey Skiles piloted US Airways Flight 1549, what was supposed to be a routine flight from 
New York to North Carolina. Skiles was in control for takeoff until, two minutes into the flight, a huge flock of birds flew directly into the plane's engines, rendering both useless. They were more than 3,000 feet in the air, without power and slowly falling to Earth. Sully calmly said, "My aircraft." Those two words would change his life forever. Newsweek spoke to Sully about the day he executed a controlled water landing on the Hudson River, saving all on board.

Tell us about that day in your own words.

It was a day like literally 10,000 other days—until it wasn't. I had been flying airplanes for 42 years, and in all that time I never knew when or even if I would be faced with some ultimate challenge.

I had never been so challenged in an airplane that I doubted the outcome.

Did you ever have any doubt in your mind that you would not be able to save the day?

At the outset, we had the great advantage of knowing what had caused this: I had seen the birds about two or three seconds before we struck them—but not enough time to maneuver away. When we struck them and the engines were damaged, I knew in that moment that it was going to be a life-changing event—that this was going to be unlike any experience I had ever had. I knew it was going to be the hardest day of my life, the biggest problem I would ever have to solve. But I was confident I could solve it. I never thought I would die that day. I was just trying to make sure that no one else did.

Why were you so confident that you would
 not die?

I knew I could find a way. Even though this was 
an unanticipated event for which we have never specifically trained, I was confident that I could quickly synthesize a lifetime of training and experience, adapt it in a new way to solve a problem 
I had never seen before and get it right the first time, and so that's what I did. In 208 seconds. I wasn't sure at the outset exactly what steps I would take, but we didn't have a lot of ambiguity: I knew what happened. I didn't have to waste time with the "what happened?" phase. I was able to go right to the "how do I fix this?" phase.

Captain Sullenberger and his wife, Lorrie, at the 2011 CNN Heroes: An All-Star Tribute on December 11,2011, in Los Angeles, California. Sully has written two books: 2009’s Highest Duty and 2012’s Making a Difference: Stories of Vision and Courage from America’s Leaders. Shutterstock

How did you know what to do?

There were only three choices. There were only two runways even possibly near us that we might reach, but it turned out we were too far away from both. The only place in the whole metropolitan area of New York—one of the most densely populated places on the planet—that you could even attempt to land a large, fast jet airliner was the Hudson River. It's long enough, wide enough, smooth enough that we could attempt it. After discussing the runway possibilities with the air traffic controller about returning to La Guardia [Airport], or trying Teterboro in New Jersey, I kept realizing they were too far. So I finally said, "No, we're gonna be in the river." And then I had the discipline to stick with it, without wavering, and without second-guessing myself.

Listening to the cockpit recordings, you sounded so calm. Were you?

That's a misperception. We were able to exercise a kind of professional calm, but we weren't calm at all. We couldn't be calm. I was aware of my blood pressure shooting up, my pulse spiking, my perception field narrowing because of the stress; it was actually marginally debilitating.

What was the biggest thing working against you that afternoon?

Time and workload. Extraordinarily high workload and extraordinarily short time—we had 208 seconds from the time we hit the birds until we had landed, and we had a lot to do. Part of what helped us that day, besides forcing calm on ourselves, was forcing order on this situation that could have become chaotic. In the first few seconds, I realized I couldn't save both the people on the airplane and the airplane.

Was the plane a big priority?

No. I was going to save the lives, and if that meant putting a $60-million plane in the water, then that's what it had to be. I never worried about that.

What would have been the worst-case scenario?

With an engines-out approach, there were a whole host of things I would have had to do even to land on a runway, and there are equal risks having to land on water, which is something I had never done before—and that's only been done a few times in the history of aviation with
 a large jet like this. We were given a three-page checklist to go through, and we only made it through the first page, so I had to intuitively know what to do.

You waited until just before landing to tell the passengers to "brace for impact." Was that to keep calm or from lack of time?

Lack of time. I knew I needed to make an announcement—the most important one in my career. I took probably an extravagant amount of time, maybe three to four seconds, to choose my words carefully before I spoke. I wanted to sound confident, not agitated, and I chose two specific words for a reason. "Brace" signals to the cabin that an emergency landing is imminent and tells the flight crew they should help the passengers avoid injury in what may be a hard landing. And in the spur of the moment, I chose the word "impact" to give them a vivid word picture of the fact that it was going to be a hard landing and how important it was to brace. Ultimately I said, "This is the captain. Brace for impact." I chose not to mention that it was a water landing; I didn't want them bumbling for a seat cushion or life vest or doing anything else but bracing. When we landed, they'd figure it out.

What went through your mind when you hit the water?

We didn't know what to expect, but I was confident if I could find a way to deliver the airplane to the surface intact, we could float long enough for us to be rescued, and that was critical because it was such a cold day. It was 21 degrees Fahrenheit, and the water was 38 [degrees], so rapid rescue was essential. That's why I turned south along the Hudson. I knew from experience, having visited Manhattan, the ferries operate between Pier 79 and Weehawken, New Jersey. That was the only place a rescue could happen fast enough.

Did you celebrate?

The most amazing coincidence is Jeff and I both turned to each other and said, "Well, that wasn't 
as bad as I thought." But there was no celebrating because we still hadn't solved the whole problem. We had solved the first part, but we still had to get 155 people out of the river. I went through the airplane twice to make sure there was no possibility of anyone being left behind. We had solved this huge problem of finding a way to land this huge airliner in the river—there was no way I was going to let anyone die for any other reason after that.

Do you relive that day often? Are you still haunted by it?

The nightmares only lasted for few weeks. People are resilient: I was able to process it, talk about it, write about it. One of the biggest problems was getting my sleep to return to normal. My blood pressure and pulse were so elevated—even under a doctor's care—for about 10 weeks. For the first few days, I couldn't sleep more than an hour at a time, and I couldn't shut my brain off—all of the distracted thinking and the second-guessing especially late at night.

Luckily there was nothing to second-guess....

Well, actually that's not true; even though everyone survived, I knew that during the investigation they would be analyzing everything we did. We weren't certain for many months after the investigation that we really had made the right decisions at every juncture and would ultimately be vindicated. Most people don't understand that part of the story.

How do you feel about being called a hero?

It was something I had to learn to deal with, and it was a very steep learning curve. I went from living my life anonymously for 58 years to being a public figure known globally in a matter of minutes.

I feel like I'm a shepherd of this story. I am the public face of it for many people. Of course, I do remind everyone that it took the efforts of many to achieve this successful outcome. Everybody on the airplane's lives changed that day. It's one of those events that divides your life into "before and after." But I have come to grips with the attention. I have made it part of my life experience, and I feel real gratitude that it is such a good story. It's an important job to be the public face of something that gives people hope, and I take that seriously. So I treat this story with respect.

Be honest: Do you think another pilot could have pulled this off?

That's unknowable. Many other pilots would have done something similar, but we can't unring the bell.

This article appears in Newsweek's Special Edition, Amazing Miracles.

Steven Day/AP Images; The Record, Bergen Co. NJ/Getty Images; Bettmann/Corbis