On January 15, 2009, American Airlines First Officer Susan O’Donnell was heading home. “I had flown into JFK from Brussels that day and rushed over to LaGuardia to catch a flight to Charlotte, North Carolina,” she explained in a phone interview. “I was traveling on what they call jump seat privileges. Airlines will allow other airlines’ pilots to ride in the cockpit. There’s a little fold down seat in the [Airbus] A320 – two of them – in the cockpit. If the captain will agree, he will let you ride up there. I introduced myself to Sully (Captain Chesley Sullenberger) and he said sure.”
O’Donnell had no idea that the flight she was about to take would be hailed as “The Miracle on the Hudson,” turning Sully into a national hero. The events that transpired were detailed in Sullenberger’s book, Highest Duty, and made into a major motion picture directed by Clint Eastwood and starring Tom Hanks as Sully. The film dominated the box office on its opening weekend taking in more than $35 million. (Read the review.)
O’Donnell and another pilot who was also trying to get home, had just strapped themselves into the jump seats, when a flight attendant said there were two available seats on the plane. She took a seat in first class, while the other pilot headed to coach. O’Donnell had just enough time to sit down and fasten her seat belt before the plane began to move.
“I was about to fall asleep and I heard these noises, scrapings it sounded like,” she said. “I thought about it for a second and realized that it was probably birds.” (A flock of Canada geese had struck the plane’s engines.) “At about that time the smell of burning feathers came through the air conditioning. That’s pretty definitive.”
An experienced pilot, O’Donnell had a different perspective about what was unfolding on Flight 1549 on that cold winter’s day in New York. Both her father and brother were Navy pilots and while a student at the University of Florida, O’Donnell made the decision to follow the same path. “Once I set my sights on being a Navy pilot, I just went for it,” she said. “I’m glad it all worked out.” O’Donnell was a Navy pilot for 11 years, many times taking off and landing jets on aircraft carriers. After leaving the Navy, she was with American Airlines for 24 years. She retired two years ago.
According to O’Donnell, bird strikes taking out engines are not rare. “I wasn’t overly concerned about it,” she said. “We continued to not maintain altitude very well, but we weren’t falling too fast.”
Sitting in an aisle seat, O’Donnell couldn’t see what was happening outside the airplane. “We started turning to the left,” she said. “I started hearing some noises out of the left engine, like banging. I felt that they were trying to restart the engine. I wasn’t sure but I just felt that we still had thrust. I guess I wasn’t ready to face the fact that there were zero engines, but it sounded like they were just trying to restart the left engine and I figured we would be going back to LaGuardia.”
Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger
Then, Sullenberger’s voice – “This is the captain” – came over the PA system. “I thought okay, this is where he tells us we’re headed back to LaGuardia or to Teterboro,” she said. “And then he said, `brace for impact.’ That’s not what I was expecting. I figured that we’re probably going to land in the river. You can land a plane on water. It’s not pretty, but you can do it.”
The passengers around her remained concerned, but O’Donnell said there was no panicking or yelling. One of the passengers who knew O’Donnell was a pilot asked: “Are we going down?” O’Donnell said yes. “But I wasn’t panicked or fearful, so that gave her confidence,” she said. “She told me subsequently that that helped her a lot.”
In her mind, O’Donnell reviewed three possible scenarios; the worst outcome, that people would die, and the best that there would be a smooth landing with everything fine. In between those extremes was the chance of wreckage, injury, and water flooding the interior of the plane making escape difficult or impossible. “I was mentally bracing for possibly being injured or having to make my way through water out of the airplane,” she said. “I was pretty relieved when we touched down and it was fine.”
In first class the airplane was completely dry and intact. “We almost could have been parked at the gate,” she said. “We all just stood up and heard the command to evacuate. I could hear the doors open and I could hear the raft inflate. I went and got out.” It was a different story in the back of the plane where water began to rush in.
O’Donnell found herself in the raft on the right side of the plane. People were looking around, she said, many of them making calls on their phones. Besides wearing her uniform jacket, O’Donnell also donned her overcoat which she had never had time to place in an overhead bin. “I was not cold like everybody else,” she said. “That was just a fortunate circumstance.”
Passengers were streaming out of the back of the plane and standing on the wings. “They ended up being waist deep in water, for 10 to 15 minutes,” she said. First responders quickly converged on the scene. “The first thing I saw was a helicopter and then I looked behind me and here comes this giant ferry boat,” she said. Those who were in the rafts, waved the rescuers over to the passengers standing on the wings. “Once they finished taking off the passengers on the wings, they began plucking us out of the raft,” she said. O’Donnell climbed a ladder onto the safety of one of the boats.
O’Donnell said that she didn’t see Sully during the evacuation since he was in a raft on the left side of the plane. “The next time I saw him was at the ferry terminal,” she said. “I went up and told him great job, great landing.” Sully asked her if she would like to accompany him and the rest of the crew to the hotel that had been arranged by union officials. “I said that would be great because I lost my wallet and I wasn’t sure what I was going to do,” she said. “He actually pulled out his wallet and gave me a twenty dollar bill, which was amazing.”
Once at the hotel, O’Donnell was met by her own union official who made arrangements to get her home. “The rest of the crew, Sully, Jeff, and the flight attendants, had to go be sequestered for their testing and questioning and all those things,” she said.
Tom Hanks as Sully in the film
Now, O’Donnell is able to see her experience on the big screen. “I thought it was an excellent movie,” she said. “I thought they did a great job capturing the whole event. I thought it was just very well done. The verbiage that they used was precise.” She also singled out the scene where the ferry boats maneuvered right up to the plane’s wings to reach the passengers.
Officials from the National Transportation Safety Board have objected to how they are portrayed in the film. In several scenes, these officials seem determined to prove that Sully could have made it back to LaGuardia and that landing on the Hudson River endangered the passengers’ lives. “Maybe a movie needs a bad guy, so maybe they made [the NTSB officials] a little more antagonistic than they really were,” said O’Donnell. “I didn’t think it was overdone. Apparently the NTSB disagrees with my assessment. But I thought it was reasonable, a little excessive, but reasonable.”
With the release of the film, O’Donnell finds herself talking about the event once again. And if this one interview is an example, she’s gracious and generous answering questions. “I was always questioned about it,” she said. “Everybody wanted the story. That’s fine, because it doesn’t happen very often. As pilots we always share our experiences so that other people can learn from them.”
Sully has said that many other pilots could have managed that water landing. “I do feel that that’s true,” O’Donnell said. “He did an absolutely perfect job and I’m eternally grateful for that. There are pilots that would have messed it up and there are pilots that could have also successfully landed it. So I’m glad that I got one who did it right.”
Top photo courtesy of Susan O’Donnell
Photo of Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger from Bigstock
Photo from Sully, the film, courtesy of Warner Brothers