Survival Stories: Capt. Sullenberger Tells the Story of the Miracle on the Hudson

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Author of Be Ready for Anything and Bloom Where You’re Planted online course

On Jan. 15, 2009, Captain Chelsey “Sully” Sullenberger made a series of decisions that saved the lives of all 155 people aboard the ill-fated flight 1549 out of New York’s LaGuardia Airport. Yesterday, on Twitter, Captain Sullenberger shared a play-by-play memory on the 10th anniversery of the emergency that would later be named “The Miracle on the Hudson.”

In his tweets, there are a lot of survival lessons that can be learned.

It all started out like a normal day.

Most of the time, when emergencies happen, we don’t have any advance warning. Disaster strikes out of the blue and it’s the knowledge and preparation we gained ahead of that which will save us…or not.

10 years ago today the lives of everyone on changed forever. I offer my recollections here in a series of tweets that I’ve written for my team to send out today.

I began a four-day trip on Monday, 1/12/09 in Charlotte, where I met First Officer Jeff Skiles for the first time. Wednesday night we had a long layover in Pittsburgh. I later learned Jeff went to see Clint Eastwood’s “Gran Torino.” (Eastwood would direct “Sully.”)

Thursday, January 15, 2009, started like 10,000 other days. It was snowing in Pittsburgh and our plane had to be deiced. I hoped the weather would cooperate so I could get home to California that evening. We made it to LaGuardia only a few minutes behind schedule…

…15:24:54: First Officer Jeff Skiles and I were ready and LaGuardia tower cleared our flight – identified as “Cactus 1549” – for takeoff. And like nearly every other flight I’d had for 42 years, was completely routine and unremarkable – for the first 100 seconds.

15:26:00 Air Traffic Controller Patrick Harten: “Cactus 1549, New York departure, radar contact, climb and maintain one five thousand.”

15:26:03 Me: “maintain one five thousand Cactus 1549.”

Then, a disaster that no one could have predicted or prevented struck.

As the plane was gaining altitude, a flock of Canada geese was in the way. The accident was unavoidable.

15:27:07 Me: “after takeoff checklist complete.” I saw the birds three seconds before we struck them; we were traveling 316 feet per second and could not avoid them.

15:27:10 Me: “Birds.”

15:27:11 Jeff: “Whoa.”

15:27:12 Jeff: “Oh sh&*.”

15:27:13 Me: “Oh yeah.”

We could feel and hear the thumps and thuds as we struck the birds, followed by a shuddering, and then a rumbling sound coming from the engines. We felt them rolling back.

15:27:15 Me: “We got one rol- both of ‘em rolling back.”

As the engines rolled back, they made the most sickening, pit-of-your-stomach sound, “whoooooooo” as they ran down. It was a sudden, complete, symmetrical loss of thrust. I had never experienced anything like it before.

“Engine rollback” means an engine’s failure to thrust, or an engine that is not responding to the commands of the pilot.

Sully immediately took action.

His training kicked in and he didn’t even have to think about the first actions he was going to take.

Within two and a half seconds, I had begun to take the first two remedial actions by memory. I turned on the engine ignition and started the aircraft’s auxiliary power unit.

15:27:18 Me: “Ignition, start.”

15:27:21 Me: “I’m starting the APU.”

The engine ignition would allow the engines to recover if they could. The APU would provide a backup source of electrical power, especially important in a fly-by-wire airplane like the Airbus A320, where there is not a direct mechanical connection to the controls.

The pilot and copilot worked together flawlessly. This is very important in an emergency situation – someone has to be in charge and often, there’s no time for discussion.

I took control of the aircraft as Jeff and I completed verbatim the important transfer of aircraft control protocol:

15:27:23 Me: “My aircraft.”

15:27:24 Jeff: “Your aircraft.”

Even though Jeff and I had just met for the first time three days before, if you had watched us work together, you would have thought we had been for years, because we were able to collaborate wordlessly in an emergency when there was not time to talk about it.

15:27:25: The cockpit area mic captured the sound of the igniters. The investigation revealed the engines were irreparably damaged and never would have regained thrust.

15:27:28 Me (to Jeff): “Get the QRH [Quick Reference Handbook], loss of thrust on both engines.”

It was difficult to immediately accept what was happening.

I’ve written before about how your first step in an emergency has to be overriding your brain’s natural desire to retreat into cognitive dissonance and how you must quickly move past that and accept that the incident is indeed occurring. It may help to see that even a seasoned pilot like Sully had this perfectly natural response.

I still remember my first three thoughts. First, “This can’t be happening,” a very typical thought, rooted in disbelief. Second, “This doesn’t happen to me.” All my previous flights had been mostly routine. I had never been so challenged in an airplane that I doubted the outcome.

My third thought was more of a realization – unlike all those other flights, this one would probably not end on a runway with the aircraft undamaged. I knew I had seconds to come up with a plan, minutes to execute.

As you can see, he quickly moved into the problem-solving aspect.

I knew every decision we made would be examined by the investigators and debated for years by other aviation professionals. The NTSB would spend up to a year and a half interviewing everyone involved in our flight, analyzing all the data.

They would be scrutinizing every thought I had, every choice I made, every syllable I uttered, every action I took or did not take. But I did not let this knowledge dissuade me from making hard choices and sticking with them.

His team worked to support him.

In an emergency situation, it’s very important that everyone knows what their job is and that they perform their tasks without having to have constant instruction. In the case of Flight 1549, the crew of the plane immediately shifted into gear.

In the cabin, the flight attendants heard the noise, and assumed it was a bird strike and we were going to return to LaGuardia. The cabin was quiet, with no engine noise; but the passengers were calm – they had no idea the seriousness of the situation.

Sully contacted air traffic control and Patrick, at the tower, began to try and find him a runway for an emergency landing.

15:27:32 Me: “Mayday mayday mayday. Uh this uh Cactus fifteen thirty nine hit birds, we’ve lost thrust in both engines we’re turning back towards LaGuardia.” Patrick immediately began to try to get us back to a runway at LaGuardia.

But they weren’t going to be able to get back to the airport.

Despite air traffic control’s efforts, Sully realized that he wasn’t going to be able to get the plane back to the airfields at LaGuardia or nearby Teterboro.

15:28:05 Patrick: “Cactus fifteen twenty nine, if we can get it for you do you want to try to land runway one three?”

(In the stress of the moment both Patrick and I got the flight number wrong.)

15:28:10 Me: “We’re unable. We may end up in the Hudson.”

Patrick was still determined to try to find a way to get us to a runway. I asked him about Teterboro off our right. He immediately began to arrange a landing there, but I quickly realized we couldn’t make it there either.

I knew if I set the airplane down on the river and could keep it intact, the boats and ferries would come to our rescue. 15:29:28 (two minutes and 18 seconds after the bird strike)

Me: “We’re gonna be in the Hudson.”

Patrick: “I’m sorry say again Cactus?”

This was not something for which the pilot had trained.

When an event out of the ordinary, sometimes you have to take extraordinary measures to survive it. Capt. Sullenberger set his priorities and created a plan.

This was a novel event that we had never trained for. In our flight simulators it was not possible to practice a water landing. Yet, I was able to set clear priorities. I took what I did know, adapted it, and applied it in a new way to solve a problem I’d never seen before.

We did not have enough altitude and speed (total energy) to make it to any runway, so I engaged in goal sacrificing. I was willing to sacrifice the airplane to save lives.

I realized the only other place in the entire New York Metropolitan area, one of the most densely populated and developed areas on the planet, that was long enough, wide enough, and smooth enough to even attempt landing a large, fast, heavy jet airliner was the Hudson River.

Brace for impact.

The passengers of Flight 1549 only heard from their captain once during the ill-fated trip. They had no idea until his brief announcement that their lives were in peril. His goal was not to cause panic but to provide important, lifesaving instructions.

I had time to make only one announcement to the passengers and crew, and before I made what I knew would be the most important announcement of my life, I took what was probably an extravagant amount of time, three or four seconds, to choose my words very carefully.

I wanted to sound confident because I knew courage can be contagious. In our aviation vocabulary there are certain single words that are rich with meaning. “Brace” is such a word. And I chose the word “impact” to give passengers and crew alike a vivid image of what to expect.

I said, “This is the Captain. Brace for impact.” Immediately, I heard the flight attendants start shouting their commands to the passengers – “Brace, brace, brace! Heads down! Stay down!”

Meanwhile in the cockpit…

In the cockpit, Capt. Sullenberger and First Officer Skiles were listening to the dire warnings from the plane and acting on instinct.

The cockpit warnings were sounding. A computerized voice repeated, “too low, terrain, too low, terrain… caution terrain… pull up, pull up, pull up.” 23 seconds before the landing, I asked Jeff a question.

15:30:21 Me: “Got any ideas?”

15:30:23 Jeff: “Actually not.”

I was asking him what else we could do to save lives. That we could have this exchange in middle of such a crisis is just an indication of how well we had learned our team skills at the airline. Jeff answered the way he did because he knew we had done all we could.

Jeff intuitively knew he should help me judge the height above the river to begin the landing by calling out airspeed and altitude. While the impact was hard, I could tell the plane was intact and floating. Jeff and I said almost in unison – “That wasn’t as bad as I thought.”

The plane was down but the danger was not over.

The plane landed in the water, safely and intact, but they still had to evacuate the passengers in the icy conditions and frigid waters of the Hudson.

Though we’d solved the first big problem – getting the plane down intact, there was a perilous evacuation and rescue ahead of us. While Jeff went through the evacuation checklist, I opened the cockpit door and shouted “Evacuate!”

Even in this sudden crisis, the flight attendants immediately drew upon years of training and began the evacuation. Passengers began filing out onto the wings and into the rafts at the front doors. The back doors were below the waterline; the aft rafts were useless.

It was January in NY, on the frigid Hudson River. The air temperature was 21, 11 with the windchill; the water temperature was 36. The first ferry arrived within four minutes.

The Captain was the last one off the plane.

Sully repeatedly searched the cabin to ensure no one got left behind.

When it seemed everyone was out of the cabin, I walked down the center aisle, shouting: “Is anyone there? Come forward!” I walked up and down twice, to be sure no one would be left behind. The second time the water was so high I got wet almost to my waist.

By the time I left the aircraft as the last one off, the ferries were all around us and the rescue was well underway. I tried desperately to get a count of people in the rafts and on the wings, but it was impossible.

Once he was on the ferry, he made some important phone calls. (Remember your communications plans!)

On the deck of the ferry I realized my cell phone was dry; my first call was to US Airways. The airline operations manager who answered abruptly told me he couldn’t talk because they “had a plane down in the Hudson.” I said “I know. I’m the guy.”

For the first time I thought about my own family. I called Lorrie to tell her the shocking news. She wasn’t aware of it. I told her I was ok, couldn’t talk, but would call her again later, as I had duties to perform. She picked up our girls at school before they heard the news.

Finally, he got the news he’d been waiting to hear.

At the hospital, he finally got the call.

He finally got the call he had been waiting for after four long hours.

Passengers were taken to NY and NJ. Some, including myself, were taken to hospitals to be evaluated. I was still trying to get a count of passengers. Finally, four hours after our landing, I received the number I was looking for: 155. All aboard survived.

Captain Sullenberger’s presence of mind during an unexpected crisis saved the lives of 155 people that day. He was able to overcome his shock and act quickly, make his own decisions despite advisors telling him otherwise, and keep his passengers and crew from panicking.

Why should you study real-life survival stories?

Studying these kinds of situations can help us to survive if we ever find ourselves in peril. Real life survival stories can provide us with the inspiration to think things through and the ability to be better prepared mentally. One day, your ability to do that could save your life and the lives of the people you love.

Daisy Luther

Daisy Luther

Daisy Luther is a coffee-swigging, globe-trotting blogger. She is the founder and publisher of three websites.  1) The Organic Prepper, which is about current events, preparedness, self-reliance, and the pursuit of liberty on her website, 2)  The Frugalite, a website with thrifty tips and solutions to help people get a handle on their personal finances without feeling deprived, and 3), an aggregate site where you can find links to all the most important news for those who wish to be prepared. She is widely republished across alternative media and  Daisy is the best-selling author of 5 traditionally published books and runs a small digital publishing company with PDF guides, printables, and courses. You can find her on FacebookPinterest, Gab, MeWe, Parler, Instagram, and Twitter.

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  • Here are some excerpts from wiki’s bio of Sully here,

    that seized my attention:

    Sullenberger was appointed to the United States Air Force Academy, entering with the Class of 1973 in June 1969. He was selected along with around a dozen other freshmen for a cadet glider program, and by the end of that year, he was an instructor pilot. In the year of his graduation, 1973, he received the Outstanding Cadet in Airmanship award, as the class “top flyer”.

    He holds an Airline Transport Pilot Certificate for single and multi-engine airplanes, and a Commercial Pilot Certificate rating in gliders, as well as a flight instructor certificate for airplanes (single, multi-engine, and instrument), and gliders. In total, he has more than 40 years and 20,000 hours of flying experience.

    He said that the moments before the ditching were “the worst sickening, pit-of-your-stomach, falling-through-the-floor feeling” that he had ever experienced. He also said: “One way of looking at this might be that for 42 years, I’ve been making small, regular deposits in this bank of experience, education and training. And on January 15, the balance was sufficient so that I could make a very large withdrawal.”

    President George H. W. Bush’s service dog Sully was named for the pilot.

    The rest of the wiki biography is well worth your read.


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