On this day in 2009, a potential disaster turned into a heroic display of skill and composure when Captain Chesley Burnett Sullenberger III safely landed the plane he was piloting on New York City’s Hudson River after a bird strike caused its engines to fail. David Paterson, governor of New York at the time, dubbed the incident the “miracle on the Hudson.” Sullenberger, a former fighter pilot with decades of flying experience, received a slew of honors for his actions, including an invitation to Barack Obama’s presidential inauguration and resolutions of praise from the U.S. Congress.
About a minute after taking off from New York’s La Guardia Airport on January 15, 2009, US Airways Flight 1549 collided with one of the aviation industry’s most threatening foes: a flock of geese. Crippled by the bird strike, both engines lost power and went quiet, forcing Captain Sullenberger to make an emergency landing. When air traffic controllers instructed the seasoned pilot to head for nearby Teterboro Airport, he calmly informed them that he was “unable” to reach a runway. “We’re gonna be in the Hudson,” he said simply, and then told the 150 terrified passengers and five crew members on board to brace for impact.
Ninety seconds later, Sullenberger glided the Airbus 320 over the George Washington Bridge and onto the chilly surface of the Hudson River, where it splashed down midway between Manhattan and New Jersey. As flight attendants ushered passengers into life jackets, through emergency exits and onto the waterlogged wings of the bobbing jet, a flotilla of commuter ferries, sightseeing boats and rescue vessels hastened to the scene. One survivor suffered two broken legs and others were treated for minor injuries or hypothermia, but no fatalities occurred. After walking up and down the aisle twice to ensure a complete evacuation, Sullenberger was the last to leave the sinking plane.
In October 2009, the now-famous pilot, known to his friends as “Sully,” published a book about his childhood, military background and career entitled “Highest Duty: My Search for What Really Matters.” He retired from US Airways after 30 years in the airline industry on March 3, 2010, and has since devoted his time to consulting, public speaking and advocating for aviation safety.