It promised to be a routine flight as the US AIrways Flight 1549 began its initial ascent out of LaGuardia Airport on January 15, 2009, on its way to Charlotte, North Carolina, with 155 passengers onboard. Captain Chesley B. Sullenberger and his first officer, Jeff Skiles, piloting an Airbus A320-214, had passed the end of the runway and were climbing and accelerating, Manhattan’s glorious skyline offering a picturesque backdrop.
They had been flying for 95 seconds, traveling at 316 feet per second, when Sullenberger spotted a flock of a dozen or so Canadian geese in a V-formation in front of them. When the plane struck the birds it was like being pelted by heavy rain and hail, Sullenberger would write in his book, “Highest Duty: My Search For What Really Matters.” He knew it was serious when he felt, heard, and smelled evidence that the birds had been sucked into both engines. The blades chewed up them up and the plane lost power. In all the years Sullenberger had flown, he had never had one engine go out, let alone two.
They were gliding a 150,000 pound aircraft over the Bronx at 3,000 feet, descending at 1,000 feet per minute, when Sullenberger banked left, seeking a place to land in the most densely populated city in America.
“Mayday! Mayday! Mayday!” Sullenberger called to the control tower. He explained the situation, and the air traffic controller advised him to return to LaGuardia, ordering all the runways to be cleared for an emergency landing. None of the controllers at LaGuardia would say this out loud, but they assumed things would end tragically.
Sullenberger told him the plane wouldn’t make it back to LaGuardia. Over the George Washington Bridge the controller and Sullenberger discussed trying nearby Teterboro airport in New Jersey, but at the rate the plane was diving this would also be unlikely. The last thing Sullenberger wanted was to crash the plane into buildings or crowded roadways, which would make any disaster worse.
He made up his mind: “We’re gonna be in the Hudson,” Sullenberger told him. Then the plane ducked below radar coverage and they lost contact.
The passengers had felt and heard the strike, could smell the birds when they were incinerated in the engines, could feel the plane going down. A soldier back after two tours of duty in Afghanistan was traveling with his fiancée. They expressed their love for each and kissed, expecting to die. Others sent text messages to loved ones or tried to call, expecting this to be the end.
Sullenberger addressed the passengers. “This is the captain. Brace for impact!”
Three minutes had passed since the birds struck the plane. Gravity was pulling the plane down while Sullenberger kept the nose up and the wings level. Later, he wrote:
… the earth and the river were rushing toward us. I was judging the descent rate and our altitude visually. At that instant, I judged it was the right time. I began the flare for landing. I pulled the sidestick back, farther back, finally full aft, and held it there as we touched the water.
We landed and slid along the surface in a slightly nose-up attitude. The rear of the plane hit much harder than the front. Those in the back felt a violent impact. Those in front felt it more as a hard landing.
After sliding over the water they came to a halt near 48th Street as frigid water sprayed over cockpit windows. Passengers and crew made their way off the plane and outside on to the wings as Sullenberger swept the cabin to be sure no one was left behind. He didn’t know how long the plane could float.
The first ferry, packed with commuters, arrived in less than 4 minutes to help evacuate passengers. No one asked the captain. He did it on instinct, as did 13 other boats, all making their way over.
Amazingly, no one was hurt.
As the last passenger and crew was evacuated to safety Captain Sullenberger was afraid the airline would be angry with him for wrecking one of its planes.
Besides, Sullenberger, who would be almost universally (and deservedly) hailed as a hero, a young upstart startup called Twitter would also benefit. There were no TV news crews or reporters around when the plane was ditched in the Hudson. But Twitter lit up with eye witness accounts and photos. Other people took video with their phones.
Twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey told CNBC last year, “It changed everything. Suddenly the world turned its attention because we were the source of news — and it wasn’t us, it was this person in the boat using the service, which is even more amazing.”
It led to this iconic photograph, the first visual evidence of a plane landing in the Hudson.
Shortly after, Sullenberger would retire, give speeches and write books, and I interviewed him a couple of years after his brush with fame. Many remarked at the time how calm he sounded when the flight recorder exchanges between him and the control tower were released. He exuded calm and competence.
After he shared his experiences on that fateful day, I asked what advice he could offer others facing a crisis.
“A couple of things,” he replied. First, for the short-term crisis when there’s not a lot of time to think and plan, we’re all capable of doing more than we think we can. For the longer-term crisis a good leader requires what he calls “realistic optimism.” All of this is borne of having the appropriate skills, knowledge, and judgment, and these arise from hard work. Ultimately, “leadership is aligning goals among many people toward a common good.”
To accomplish this, you need the right training, which Sullenberger had in spades. Because, as Louis Pasteur once said, “fortune favors the prepared mind.”
As we said our goodbyes, we passed a cubicle with a sign that said, “Keep calm and carry on,” a motivational poster created by the British government in 1939 just before the beginning of World War II. Sullenberger tapped it with his fingers.
“Words to live by,” he said.
[Image via Thinkstock]