He landed the plane with no engine power in the middle of the Hudson River, in New York City, and saved all souls on board five years ago this week.
US Airways flight 1549, with 155 passengers and crew on board, including Captain Chesley Sullenberger, seemed destined for disaster on January 15, 2009, when a flock of wild Canadian geese flew straight into the engines, disabling them.
Too far from the nearest airport at Teterboro, NJ and unable to turn back to La Guardia, NYC, fearful of massive casualties on the ground, Sully instead executed a flawless glide path and water landing, an astonishing feat described as one of the greatest in aviation history.
It was the singularly most heroic moment of the century so far in America, one that brought Captain Chesley Sullenberger, aka Sully, to the attention of a world starved of heroes.
Of Swiss and Irish ancestry (through his mother’s Hanna side of the family) Sullenberger has become that rarest icon, a true American hero.
“Every year that passes brings a greater sense of the enormity of events that day.”On Tuesday night Sully relived that moment for me in an interview at a midtown New York function where he launched a new watch, the 208, commemorating the time of his epic flight, launched by Jean Richard.
“You check to see what is working, you go with the facts of what you have, then you do the best you can,” he said simply.
Though he later described the eerie silence and the “worst sickening pit of your stomach, falling through the floor feeling” as he came to realize the plane was without power he gave no indication to his co-pilot or passengers what he was feeling.
Instead he simply said “my plane” when the incident happened, taking overall responsibility. Then he told the passengers “brace yourselves” just before his water landing.
Even safely floating on the water with all passengers evacuated he insisted on walking the length of the plane twice to make sure there was no one trapped.
How does he feel now five years later? His charming wife Lorraine responded, noting that every year that passes brings a greater sense of the enormity of events that day.
She recalls saying goodbye to him earlier that week, from their San Francisco area home, as he set off on what seemed a routine tour.
He described with a smile, how he tried to call her after the accident, but she was busy phoning a friend.
They are a devoted couple it is clear.
Watching Sully’s heroics in Queens was a little nine-year-old red-haired boy called, Rory Staunton, my nephew.
Rory was already a flying fanatic and Sully’s spectacular landing stamped him forever as Rory’s hero.
Sully’s book “Highest Duty” was on his bed stand for the next year; Sully was his inspiration as he took his first flying lesson at age 12 on May 3, 2011.
Their paths would intersect in the most poignant way possible soon after.
On January 15 last year Sully met with my family, my sister Orlaith and brother-in-law Ciaran Staunton and their daughter Kathleen.
Rory died from sepsis in April 2012 after catastrophic medical mistakes were made in his hospital care after he suffered a scrape in a basketball game at his school.
Rory’s battle for life was featured in The New York Times, and the coverage included his admiration and hero worship for Sully.
Sully read the article and contacted Ciaran and Orlaith. When they met he sat and read Rory’s hero worship essay about him and the stoic old pilot wiped away a tear…Since that day he has been on team Rory.
Sully’s bravery that day was one of the greatest feel-good stories of its time, but his heroism does not end there.
Since that day he has resolved to continue his efforts to make air travel safer and also to ensure, based on pre-flight checklists, that hospital procedures, especially in emergency rooms, are greatly improved.
The Staunton’s fight became his fight to ensure that the catastrophic medical mistakes made in Rory’s treatment would never happen to another family.
Organizers donated part of the proceeds to the Rory Staunton Foundation and the Red Cross.
He did so unobtrusively and quietly, which is his way, but his speech recalling the events of five years ago and the life lessons he learnt kept his audience rapt.
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