Hero of the Hudson's terror within

Captain of stricken jet gives first formal interview

David Usborne
Saturday 07 February 2009 01:00 GMT

He may have sounded matter of fact on the radio to traffic controllers but as his aircraft lost every ounce of power on 15 January just after take-off from La Guardia airport in New York, Captain Chesley Sullenberger was suffering intense inner turmoil, ranging from denial to physical nausea.

In his first formal interview since the incident, Captain Sullenberger admits to Katie Couric on 60 Minutes, the CBS news magazine that will be broadcast tomorrow evening, that his first thoughts were not, as she suggests to him, "how do we get out of this", but rather, "this can't be happening".

"I knew immediately it was very bad," he tells Couric, describing his first thoughts after the so-called double-bird strike that instantly disabled both engines on the Airbus A320 aircraft at about 5,000ft less than three minutes after its departure. "My initial reaction was one of disbelief".

Audio tapes released by the Federal Aviation Authority confirmed that, on the outside, Captain Sullenberger maintained utter calm, sorting through options, including returning to La Guardia or heading for Teterboro, an executive airport in New Jersey, before concluding neither would be viable. "We're gonna be in the Hudson," Mr Sullenberger – known as Sully to his friends – is heard telling the control tower flatly. It is a statement that at first the controller himself has trouble grasping. Using the code name for the flight, he responds, "I'm sorry, say again, Cactus?"

Soon after, Mr Sullenberger, aided by his co-pilot Jeffrey Skiles, glided the jet to a textbook touchdown in the Hudson River just off the shores of midtown Manhattan with no loss of life or serious injury for the 155 passengers and crew on board. But to Couric, the pilot reveals a glimpse of the fear he was feeling inside once the extraordinary severity of the situation had sunk in. As the plane angled towards the water, he said, he was overtaken by "the worst sickening, pit-of-your-stomach, falling-through-the-floor feeling," he had ever had.

The water landing of flight 1549, which had been bound for Charlotte, North Carolina, on a particularly frigid winter's day, has already become one of the most important – and miraculous – incidents in aviation history. Within moments of the splashdown, passengers were lining up on the aircraft's semi-submerged wings as a flotilla of rescue vessels approached from nearby ferry terminals. Last week, federal investigators all but confirmed that the plane had indeed been crippled by birds being sucked in both engines at the same time. Remains of birds were found in both engines, they said.

Mr Sullenberger, who is seen in the interview with his wife at his home in Danville, California, pays tribute to the city's emergency services, saying that he owes them a "debt of gratitude" he may never be able to repay. Interviews with Mr Skiles and flight attendants also feature in the broadcast.

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