ON the day itself, Americans had been assailed by headlines that told of economic meltdown and war in the Middle East.
Across the world, the story was repeating with grim regularity. Job losses, bank bailouts, death and tension. The temperature in New York fell to as low as -7C. It is fair to say that 15 January, 2009, was not shaping up to be a day to remember. The world might have needed a hero, but was not holding its breath.
That was until about 3:27pm, as US Airways Flight 1549 appeared in the sky, hurtling towards New York's Hudson river.
On board, Captain Chesley B Sullenberger and his 154 passengers and crew were about to make history. A modest, though perhaps not unlikely, hero had indeed arrived.
Flight 1549 to Charlotte, North Carolina, was the kind of routine journey the 57-year-old pilot had taken control of thousands of times before.
But less than a minute after taking off from runway four of LaGuardia airport, at 3:26pm on Thursday, calamity struck. There was a loud bang, and the airliner rattled. Jeff Kolodjay, a 31-year-old from Norwalk, Connecticut, looked left out of the window from seat 22A. He saw fire blowing out from the engine and smelled fuel in the air.
Sitting immediately behind, Bill Zuhoski watched a stewardess ask a colleague for a fire extinguisher. She wore an expression of panic. Mr Zuhoski locked arms with the fellow passengers in his row.
At this point, the aircraft was 3,200ft above the central Bronx. From the cockpit, Capt Sullenberger contacted officials at the New York Terminal Radar Approach Control.
He reported a "double bird strike" on his engines. A flock of geese, it appeared, had damaged the turbine blades, and wrought electrical failures. Air traffic controllers then reportedly advised him to return to La Guardia, but Capt Sullenberger is said to have replied: "Unable." He then spotted runways a few miles west, identified as New Jersey's Teterboro airport by air traffic controllers, who advised the pilot to land there.
His 80-tonne charge, however, was failing quickly. With neither the sufficient airspeed nor altitude, Capt Sullenberger was forced to consider a drastic alternative, and took a tight left turn over the George Washington Bridge.
Within 60 seconds, the A320 had lost 2,000ft, and hurtled ominously along the Manhattan shoreline.
Ordinary New Yorkers held their breaths, the memories of past tragedies giving rise to their worst fears.
Susan Obel, who watched the plane career down the Hudson from her 20th-floor apartment on 70th Street and Amsterdam Avenue, said: "It was an eerie feeling, like 9/11, because there was a plane somewhere it wasn't supposed to be."
Another minute passed. The A320 soared just a few hundred feet above the water. Capt Sullenberger addressed those onboard. "Brace for impact," he announced. In seconds, the passengers saw their lives flash before them, and thought of loved ones, or regrets. "I thought we were all going to die," said Elizabeth McHugh, a 64-year-old grandmother on her way home to Charlotte.
"I kept thinking to myself, 'I didn't get a chance to tell my family I love them'."
Alberto Panero's recollection on hearing Capt Sullenberger's address was more succinct. "That's when we knew we were going down."
The lives of the passengers, who included a nine-month-old baby and an 89-year-old grandmother, were in Capt Sullenberger's hands.
A 125mph crash – but he was as unruffled 'as David Niven'
IMMEDIATELY on crash landing, the pilot left the cabin, and walked to the back of the airliner, ensuring everyone was safe.
Then in the minutes after Flight 1549 ditched into an icy Hudson at 125mph, New Yorkers rallied around her submerging shell. Frightened passengers streamed out of emergency exits and stood on the wings, which bobbed on the surface.
Vince Lombardi, the captain of the Thomas Jefferson ferry, had just set sail for New Jersey when he saw the plane in the river. He and his crew changed course to help, and were quickly joined by a small armada of other ferries, tugboats, police boats, Coast Guard vessels, waterway taxis and inflatable rescue craft.
Only moments after the crash, the passengers, all but a handful of whom escaped injury, were accounted for.
One passenger, Billy Campbell, found himself on a rescue raft with Capt Sullenberger. "I leaned over and grabbed his arm, and I said, 'I just want to thank you on behalf of all of us'. He just said, 'You're welcome'."
One NYPD source observed the pilot's unlikely demeanour on reaching the ferry terminal. "He was sitting there wearing his hat, sipping his coffee, and acting like nothing had happened. He looked like David Niven."
Four decades an aviator, he got his flying licence aged 14
IT WAS the modest response of a true professional, a man to whom a life in the skies was a dream nurtured from a young age.
Growing up in the 1950s in the small Texan city of Denison, most famous as the birthplace of Dwight D Eisenhower, one thing occupied his mind – the sleek, powerful fighter jets that congregated around Perrin air force base.
Doug Hoover, a former high school classmate of Capt Sullenberger, recalled the ambition of his friend. "We grew up with jets buzzing around, and he was in love with that from the get-go," he said, adding normal temptations of teen- age life were never a factor for him.
"He didn't want to do anything to hurt his chances to get into the air force," Mr Hoover said. "He never got into any mischief whatsoever."
Before reaching adulthood, Capt Sullenberger had taken the first step towards his dream. While in high school, this son of a dentist and a teacher mother took private lessons and earned his private pilot's licence at the tender age of 14.
Three years later, he had passed the air force's demanding entry requirements, and travelled north to begin his new career in and around the Rocky Mountains with the US Air Force Academy.
By 1974, he was a fully commissioned air force officer, replete with a new nickname, "Sully". Tellingly, his time in Colorado Springs also saw Capt Sullenberger graduate with a bachelor of science in psychology. It was a sign of the studious, rational mind – he would later accrue two masters degrees – that would save many lives more than three decades later. During his years in the air force, Sullenberger served as a fighter pilot. Based out of Nevada, he flew F-4 Phantom jets across the US, Europe, and the Pacific.
The air force training, thankfully, included gliders
HE also developed an interest in accident prevention, and served as a member of the air force mishap investigation board.
His flying experience, thankfully for the passengers of Flight 1549, included gliders.
Two years short of his 40th birthday, Capt Sullenberger opted for a change, and left the military for what would become a long and illustrious career as a civilian pilot for US Airways. He flew Airbus A319, A320 and A321 aircraft, travelling to Latin America and the Caribbean.
Simply ensuring his craft arrived from A to B on time, however, could never satisfy Capt Sullenberger. At US Airways, he took a hands-on role in improving maintenance, safety and training standards, in particular consulting with Nasa, spearheading efforts to bolster the reliability of the US Airways' fleet, and working with the Federal Aviation Authority to tighten landing procedures. At the same time, he put his knowledge of air safety to good use, setting up his own firm, Safety Reliability Methods, which helps companies reduce risks and improve procedures.
His extensive knowledge came to the attention of the University of California Berkley, where he was a visiting scholar at the Centre for Catastrophic Risk Management, a faculty created in the wake of Hurricane Katrina and designed to improve the safety and resilience of physical and social infrastructure in the face of disaster. Capt Sullenberger proved a natural asset.
Robert Bea, a co-director of the centre, said he could think of few people as well prepared to bring a plane down safely in the middle of one the world's busiest cities.
"This is someone who has not just spent his life flying airplanes, but has dug very deeply into what makes these things work," Mr Bea said.
Karlene Roberts, another co-director, added: "I can imagine him being sufficiently in charge to get those people out. He's got that kind of personality, which is to his credit."
'As Hemingway said, heroism is grace under pressure'
IN THE wake of what was nearly a catastrophe, the world has feted the calm and purposeful actions of the man who safely steered his airliner away from tragedy 3,000ft above New York. "Hemingway defined heroism once as grace under pressure and I think it's fair to say that Captain Sullenberger displayed that," said Michael Bloomberg, mayor of New York, who revealed the key to the city awaits the pilot after he has finished helping investigators confirm why his Airbus became starved of power.
And while George Bush, the US President, also praised the flight crew's "skill and heroism", one of the passengers paid a more personal tribute to Captain Sullenberger.
"He is the reason my daughter, my two-year-old, has a dad and my wife, a husband," said Brad Wentzell.
'You only get one shot at a crash landing'
NOTHING was heard from "Sully" himself yesterday, amid the effusive testaments paid by many of his colleagues, friends and family.
Greg Feith, a former investigator with the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), the body charged with investigating aviation accidents in the US, said of the landing: "You only have one shot at this in real life. If he dragged a wing, had one wing down, he could have cart-wheeled the airplane and we would be talking about fatalities."
But the captain's wife, Lorrie, perhaps best summed up his character. "He's very controlled, very professional," she said. "He's a pilots' pilot. He loves the art of the aeroplane."
Sullenberger 'would have died for his passengers'
ONCE the NTSB has finished its investigations, Captain Chesley B Sullenberger III will be sat in front of a host of microphones and cameras. One suspects that he will feel a tinge of discomfort.
He is a man who spent his life quietly and fastidiously preparing for calamity. Until Thursday, disaster was an abstract notion, read about in peer journals or discussed in lectures. When the terrifying reality arrived, he made good the advice of Dwight Eisenhower, now Denison's second-favourite son, who said plans are nothing, but planning is everything.
Around Texas, the US and the world, the pilot who as a boy gazed up in wonder at the fighter jets soaring over his home has found fulfilment.
"This is his first chance to be a hero," said Doug Hoover, the captain's old high-school friend. "But he always had it in him. He would have gone down with the ship, if that's what it took."
Passengers tell of moment plane ditched
SHOCKED passengers who escaped from the US Airways Airbus A320 that ditched in New York's Hudson River have spoken of the moment the plane came down.
Some passengers on the stricken craft described seeing themselves die in their mind's eye as it plummeted down towards the cold waters, while office workers told how they thought the city was under terrorist attack.
The full details of what happened have yet to emerge but, already, the accounts are astonishing. Passengers described how one woman, who had confessed before take-off that she was afraid of flying, became the one who calmed down her fellow passengers by holding their hands and assuring them everything would be all right.
Those aboard the jet remember a flight that became harrowing in the space of minutes. People spoke of hearing a loud bang, a smell of smoke in the cabin, and an eerie silence as the engines died away.
Passenger Dave Sanderson recalled: "I heard the explosion. I looked down. I saw the flames coming from underneath the wings, coming back. I said, 'This is not a good thing'."
Bill Zuhoski, 23, said: "When the plane hit the water, for a second I just thought I was going to die right there, I was just going to drown to death."
Matt Kane described the terrifying moment of impact.
"I hit my head on the seat in front of me … and you say, 'All right, I'm still here'.
"And then the water starts coming in pretty fast. And it was cold. So it woke you up pretty quickly. You get out of the shock and start moving." He then took out his BlackBerry and texted a friend the only message he could think of. It read: "I'm on the Hudson River."
Jeff Kolodjay, another on board, said the passengers worked together after the emergency landing. "Everyone was kind of orderly," he said. "I kept saying, 'Relax, relax. Women and children first'. And then it just started filling with water – quick."
David Watta, vice-president of a travel firm, was heading home to New Jersey on the Weehawken Ferry as the plane went down. The vessel changed course, and soon, he was helping to pull passengers to safety.
He said: "We were holding people, hugging them, reassuring them, holding their hands, warming them with our body heat. We provided cellphones so they could call loved ones. A lot of them were so cold that they couldn't dial, so we dialled for them."
Fulmer Duckworth, 41, who saw the plane crash-land from her office, said: "It made this huge, gigantic splash, and I thought it was a boat accident. It didn't occur to me that it was a plane in the water."
Neil Lasher, a 62-year-old consultant for Sony Music, witnessed the plane splash into the Hudson from his apartment. He said: "I almost got that same choked-up feeling when I saw the second plane hit the tower … seeing jets go down where they don't belong. You don't know, it could've been tragic."
A million dollars for starters – what fame will bring pilot
FOR Captain Chesley Sullenberger, the coming weeks will undoubtedly be a blur.
Before he has even had a chance to tell his story to the public, he has already been given the title "hero" by the mayor of New York, who said that his actions would inspire "millions of people in this city and millions more around the world", while a Facebook tribute page to him has been set up.
The New York Daily News treated its readers to a wrap-around cover showing the passengers huddled in lifejackets on the wings, and printed 12 pages of euphoric coverage.
The New York Post labelled the pilot "The Superhero" and street traders have begun selling T-shirts proclaiming "I Survived the Miracle on the Hudson".
Such tributes can only hint at the media frenzy which awaits Capt Sullenberger.
The publicist Max Clifford believes life will change dramatically for the pilot. "Very quickly, a civil reception will be organised, the president will congratulate him and he could be awarded some sort of medal," Mr Clifford said.
In the long term, he believes there will also be potential for the pilot to capitalise on his actions: "Of course, there are the opportunities for advertising and product endorsement."
But Mr Clifford warned Capt Sullenberger should be careful. "In these situations, what you reject can be just as important as what you accept," he said.
"Financially, though, in the short term, you're looking potentially at earning a million dollars, but long-term, with the right planning co-ordination, it could be millions."
Keeping calm is vital, says man who flew into volcano
LANDING that plane on water had to be the hardest thing for the pilot. He did it perfectly and that is all you can hope for when you are a pilot – that when the chips are down, you perform to the best of your abilities.
What would he have experienced on the flight deck? While I'm sure there would be a little bit of tension, there certainly would not have been panic. You have all those instruments flashing in front of you, and you will have bells and klaxons going and all hell can break loose.
But the only way to deal with that sort of situation is to think it through lucidly and ask yourself what's caused what.
Your main priority in that sort of situation is that you want to know what is happening and what has happened. What you do not want, though, is to try to have a detailed post-mortem right there and then. Really, the main thing is to a keep the plane flying – working out how to get over the problems.
With a situation like this, it comes down to a team effort on the flight deck. You have got to work together. If you start to work in opposition to each other, you will just get further into trouble.
Everyone has their designated tasks, and I am of the opinion that when you get something serious happening, the captain should be flying the plane and the co-pilot should take a back-up role, doing everything in his power to assist, such as talking to the people on the ground.
As far as air traffic control is concerned, it is there to make quick decisions for the pilot. Yesterday, when the pilot told them that he had bird strike, they cleared him immediately to turn back to LaGuardia and land. That's the sort of help you need from the ground, you do not want procrastination.
The experience of having all engines cut out at once is almost unbelievable. When it happened to us, our reaction was disbelief, because it is something that just does not happen to a jumbo jet.
However, the plane still flew quite naturally. We had back-up power reserves and it did not drop out of the sky, it was more like the world's biggest glider.
But bringing the plane down on water would be a major challenge. You would have to keep your wings level to make sure they did not snag the surface, but the real skill would be in judging the touch-down, because water is a very hard medium.
He would really have had to kiss the surface with the belly of the plane until it sucked him in a bit and broke the meniscus of the water, releasing some of the surface tension, and then hope that the deceleration was not such that it turned their bones to jelly. Potentially, he could have hit it in such a way as to snap the tail off, or he could have dipped the nose under water so it started to go down like a submarine. It takes a fine balance and the pilot did an outstanding job. Certainly, he will feel some sense of euphoria in the coming days.
In 1982 I was in charge of a BA passenger flight from Kuala Lumpur to Perth, Australia, when all four engines cut out after we flew through a volcanic dust cloud, forcing me to make an emergency landing at night in Jakarta.
With me, the euphoria lasted for about ten days, but I have never suffered any flashbacks, though some of the staff have been psychologically disturbed. My hair did go fair and I did suffer some health problems later on, which I'm told was delayed shock, but in 1982 there was no talk of counselling.
I actually kept flying professionally for 13 years after the incident and had no problem getting back in the pilot's seat. I felt I had proved I was good enough for the job, but you do have watch for over-confidence.
Personally, I thought the interest in my own experience would last six months, but 27 years on I'm still doing public speaking engagements about it, and I have bookings until March 2010.
If I could say one thing to this pilot, I would tell him if he got himself an agent, he could be a very rich man!