On a freezing day in January 2009, Clay Presley stood on the wing of an Airbus A320 that had been ditched in New York’s Hudson River, waiting for boats to rescue him and the other 154 passengers and crew on US Airways Flight 1549.
Two years and 10 days later, Presley soloed a Cessna 172SP at Rock Hill Airport in Rock Hill, S.C.
“He was a little surprised” when CFI Troy Fleming climbed out of the cockpit on the morning of Jan. 25 to let him fly by himself, Fleming said. “He was relieved and excited to do it on his own. He did a really good job.”
Presley says he is excited about his solo and about eventually getting a private pilot certificate. His experience on that January day aboard Flight 1549 was in part a catalyst for learning to fly, he says.
Flight 1549, piloted by Capt. Chesley B. “Sully” Sullenberger, landed in the Hudson on Jan. 15 after the Airbus struck a flock of Canada geese. The jet had been climbing out from LaGuardia Airport en route to Charlotte, N.C., and when both its engines failed, Sullenberger and First Officer Jeffrey Skiles didn’t have enough altitude to turn back or make an emergency landing at Teterboro, N.J. After the ditching, Flight 1549’s crew successfully evacuated everyone on board.
"We were all scared to death, it was a traumatic experience for all of us," Presley says. "I started thinking about that day. The only thing I was in control of was myself, and I didn't understand what was going on." He says he realized that if he learned to fly, he could begin to understand what was going on in the cockpit.
He'd pretty much made up his mind to start lessons, but the clincher was when Skiles offered to take him flying "in a real airplane." Skiles met him in Wisconsin and took him up in an open-cockpit Waco. After that, "I said all right, I'm going to do this," says Presley.
Presley has kept in touch with many Flight 1549 passengers and crew members and has shared photos of his flight training progress with Sullenberger and Skiles. His CFI says he has a light-hearted attitude about the Hudson River ditching. For example: Flying with his flight instructor over one of the state's many manmade lakes at about 500 feet agl, Presley joked that they should practice a simulated water landing, Fleming said.
The new PIC says he's looking forward to getting some more solo time. The day after he soloed, he had to hop an international flight to Frankfurt, Germany, to attend a trade show. Presley owns Carolina Pad, a company that designs and sells school supplies. He says he hopes to use a private pilot certificate to visit his four adult children. His oldest son is also a private pilot.
Presley resides in Charlotte and trains with FlyCarolina, a flying club with aircraft based at Charlotte/Douglas International, Concorde Regional, Charlotte-Monroe Executive, and Gastonia Municipal, along with Rock Hill. The club has a fleet of 30 airplanes and employs 15 full- and part-time flight instructors. It was established in 1996 by two pilots with one airplane, according to CFII Dick Kruse.