March 12, 2014
He had made thousands of routine flights, but it only took one flight that was less than 4 minutes long to make him famous.
Jeff Skiles was first officer aboard the US Airways Flight 1549 on Jan. 15, 2009 when it struck a flock of geese shortly after takeoff from LaGuardia Airport in New York City. With one engine totally gone and another not working, they couldn’t go back to LaGuardia or divert to another airport. There wasn’t time.
So they landed the only place it was clear — on the Hudson River. That landing, and the subsequent rescue of all on board, made Skiles and Capt. Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger household names.
Skiles said he was just off training on the Airbus, so this flight was his first in the Airbus and his first time flying with Sully. “I had worked at US Airways for 24 years and he had worked there for 30, and I don’t even recall seeing Sully before then,” he said. “There’s 5,000 pilots at US Airways …and we can’t depend on knowing the person we are going to work with. We need to be able to sit down and work with the crew from the very first takeoff. We do that by following our procedures and training very strictly. I didn’t really know Sully, but I did know what he was going to do in any particular situation.”
Skiles did the walk-around outside the plane and the passengers — all 150 of them — boarded. Inside, Sullenberger and Skiles completed the cockpit checklist, loading every computer and checking every switch and system.
“We closed the door, pushed out and started up our engines,” Skiles recalled. At the end of runway 4, they stopped, and Skiles did the takeoff briefing. “As airline crews go through the day, they swap legs,” Skiles explained. “This just happened to be my leg to fly.”
They took off, and at 3,000 feet in the air, Skiles pitched the nose of the plane over and continued to accelerate. “I remember something caught my eye; slightly above and to the right I saw a line of birds,” he said. “They were too close to maneuver about … and then we were on top of them.
“Their bodies were impacting on the wings, on the fuselage and at least two of them went through the core of each engine,” he said. “I remember thinking we have to assess the damage, and after a second both engines immediately cut power. You could feel the airplane sag in the air.”
Back in the cabin, the fight attendants knew something was horribly wrong, and passengers saw flames shooting about 50-feet out of the left engine. But the right-side engine was even more heavily damaged. Some passengers wrote notes to leave to their loved loves, and shoved them in their pockets, Skiles said. Others texted their families on their phone: “The plane is going down. I’ll always love you.”
What Skiles remembers most is the noise in the cockpit, he said, as the alert bell was continuously sounding. Sully then reached for the PA phone and announced, “Brace for impact.”
Moments later they were down.
The crew evacuated the passengers to life rafts, and Sully and Skiles were the last to leave, all getting a lift to shore from nearby ferry boats. As he walked into the heated cabin of the boat, a passenger suggested he call somebody and handed him his phone.
“I called my wife and said I don’t think I’ll be home tonight,” he says. He was right; he didn’t make it home that night, but he did eventually make it home, and so did everyone else on that flight, thanks to the crew’s quick thinking.
“We had one moment of bad luck,” Skiles said, “but we really had thousands of moments of good luck. The river was clear that day. There was no wind or 3-foot swells. Sully and I had a role in this (miracle), but so did the three flight attendants, the passengers, the boat crews, the first responders…”
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