Flight 1549: A Routine Takeoff Turns Ugly

Captain Sullenberger Recalls The Bird Strike And The Tense And Crucial Minutes That Followed

CBS All Access
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This story was first published on Feb. 8, 2009. It was updated on July 4, 2009.

When US Airways flight 1549 landed in New York's Hudson River on Jan. 15, what seemed destined to be a tragedy became an extraordinary tale of success and survival. By the time all 155 people were pulled from the icy waters by a flotilla of rescue boats, a story began to emerge of a highly trained pro with a cool demeanor who had deftly guided his doomed aircraft to safety.

In an instant, Captain Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger found himself at the heart of an uplifting news story people all over the world wanted to celebrate.

In February, just two weeks later, Capt. Sullenberger gave Katie Couric and 60 Minutes his first account of the harrowing five minutes in the sky over New York City.

"It was the worst sickening pit of your stomach, falling through the floor feeling I've ever felt in my life. I knew immediately it was very bad," Sullenberger told correspondent Katie Couric.

"Did you think, 'How are we gonna get ourselves out of this?'" Couric asked.

"No. My initial reaction was one of disbelief. 'I can't belief this is happening. This doesn't happen to me,'" he remembered.

Asked what he meant by that, Sullenberger said, "I meant that I had this expectation that my career would be one in which I didn't crash an airplane."

First responders in New York City expected the worst - an Airbus A320 with 155 people down in the middle of the frigid Hudson River. Only five minutes earlier, Captain Sullenberger had taken off from LaGuardia Airport on a routine flight bound for Charlotte, N.C.

"Well, it was a normal climb out in every regard. And about 90 seconds after takeoff, I notice there were birds, filling the entire windscreen, from top to bottom, left to right, large birds, close, too close to avoid," Sullenberger recalled.

Asked when he realized there had been a bird strike, he said, "Oh, you could hear them, as soon as they did. Loud thumps. It felt like the airplane being pelted by heavy rain or hail. It sounded like the worst thunderstorm I'd ever heard growing up in Texas. It was shocking. "

"When did you realize that these birds had seriously damaged the aircraft?" Couric asked.

"When I felt, heard and smelled the evidence of them going into the engines. I heard the noises. I felt the engine vibrations, of the damage being done to the engines. And I smelled what I described at the time, and I still would as a burned bird smell being brought from the engine area into the conditioning system of the airplane," he said.

He said he realized right away that the engines were failing. "It was obvious to me from the moment that we lost the thrust that this was a critical situation. Losing thrust on both engines, at a low speed, at a low altitude, over one of the most densely populated areas on the planet. Yes, I knew it was a very challenging situation."

The plane, Sullenberger explained, lost forward momentum almost completely. "The airplane stopped climbing and going forward, and began to rapidly slow down. That's when I knew I had to take control of the airplane."

"I put my hand on the side stick and I said, the protocol for the transfer of control, 'my aircraft,' and the first officer Jeff immediately answered, 'Your aircraft,'" Sullenberger remembered.

With no engine power, Sullenberger had to glide the jet. "You use the forward momentum to provide the air flow over the wings to provide the sufficient lift."

Asked what was going through his head, Sullenberger told Couric, "I knew immediately that this, unlike every other flight I'd had for 42 years, was probably not going to end with the airplane undamaged on the runway."

Bird Strike:

The airplane was about 3,000 feet over New York City and descending fast. Thirty seconds after the engines failed, Captain Sullenberger began urgently looking for someplace to land and radioed air traffic control.

The , but he didn't fly there. "I quickly determined that due to our distance from LaGuardia and the distance and altitude required to make the turn back to LaGuardia, it would be problematic reaching the runway and trying to make a runway I couldn't quite make could well be catastrophic to everyone on board, and persons on the ground. And my next thought was to consider Teterboro," he told Couric.

It soon became clear he couldn't make it to Teterboro either.

"The only viable alternative, the only level smooth place sufficiently large to land an airliner was the river," Sullenberger said.

The river, Sullenberger said, was right to his left, and he contacted air traffic control again. "I said, 'We're going in the Hudson.'"

That decision to go in the Hudson was made two and a half minutes into the flight - and just one minute after the birds had hit. Sullenberger and his co-pilot Jeff Skiles started preparing to land on the water.

Asked what kinds of things he'd have to think or worry about during that process, Sullenberger said, "As soon as I assumed control of the aircraft, I turned the engine ignition on. So if there was any chance of a relight, we would have gotten it automatically. The next thing I did was I started the auxiliary power unit, another small jet engine that we used to provide electrical power for the airplane."

But the engines didn't start. "No luck. I mean, I got the AP running, I turned the ignition on, but still, no usable thrust. We were descending rapidly toward the water," he recalled. "The water was coming up at us fast."

"Do you think about the passengers at that moment?" Couric asked.

"Not specifically," Sullenberger said. "I mean, more abstractly, perhaps. I mean, knew I had to solve this problem. I knew I had to find a way out of this box I found myself in."

Asked if he at any point prayed, he told Couric, "I would imagine somebody in back was taking care of that for me while I was flying the airplane."

"My focus at that point was so intensely on the landing," he said. "I thought of nothing else."

There were just three and a half minutes for Captain Sullenberger to accomplish what only a few commercial airline pilots had ever done, and he was determined to avoid the fate of an Ethiopian airliner, which landed in the Indian Ocean in 1996 and broke into pieces, killing most of the passengers on board.

"What were some of the things you had to do to make this landing successful?" Couric asked.

"I needed to touch down with the wings exactly level. I needed to touch down with the nose slightly up. I needed to touch down at a descent rate that was survivable. And I needed to touch down just above our minimum flying speed but not below it. And I needed to make all these things happen simultaneously," he explained.

And he had to keep his cool. "The physiological reaction I had to this was strong, and I had to force myself to use my training and force calm on the situation," he said.

He told Couric that wasn't a hard thing to do. "It just took some concentration."

And he told Couric the three-and-a-half minute descent actually felt like three and a half minutes - there was no sensation of slow motion. "I wish it had been. I might've thought about more things on the way down."

Asked what he saw from the cockpit, Sullenberger said, "I saw the river ahead of me. Long, wide with boats at the south end. We were trained to land in the water near other boats to facilitate rescue. That was where the airplane was headed and that was a good place to go."

The Landing:

Ninety seconds before hitting the water, Captain Sullenberger made an announcement to the passengers and crew. Three simple words: "brace for impact."

"I made the brace for impact announcement in the cabin and immediately, through the hardened cockpit door, I heard the flight attendants begin shouting their commands in response to my command to brace. 'Heads down. Stay down.' I could hear them clearly. They were chanting it in unison over and over again to the passengers, to warn them and instruct them. And I felt very comforted by that. I knew immediately that they were on the same page. That if I could land the airplane, that they could get them out safely," he remembered.

"But there was still a big if," Couric pointed out.

"I was sure I could do it," he replied.

There couldn't have been a better man for the job: a former Air Force fighter pilot who spent nearly 30 years flying commercial aircraft, specialized in accident investigations, and instructed flight crews on how to respond to emergencies in the air.

"I think, in many ways, as it turned out, my entire life up to that moment had been a preparation to handle that particular moment," he said.

That moment was captured by security cameras at 3:30 p.m. on January 15, as flight 1549 approached the water line and then landed in the river.

"Hitting the water is hard," Sullenberger said. "It was a hard landing. And then we scooted along the surface for some point. And then at some point the nose finally did come down as the speed decreased. And then we turned slightly to the left and stopped."

"When you landed, you and the first officer looked at each other," Couric said.

"And we said, 'Well, that wasn't as bad as I thought.' And then we quickly began doing our duties. He was running the evacuation check list while I opened the door and commanded evacuate," Sullenberger recalled.

"Did you give yourself even a few seconds though to acknowledge that you had averted disaster?" Couric asked.

"No, because I hadn't quite yet," he replied. "And I had business to attend to. I had a job to do."

Read how the entire crew pulled of a dramatic and very successful evacuation, saving all 155 souls on board.

Produced by Tanya Simon, Michael Radutzky and Lori Beecher