Read an Excerpt
January 15, 3:25 p.m.
Chesley Sullenberger and Jeffrey Skiles met for the first time late in the afternoon of Monday, January 12, at the US Airways hub in Charlotte, North Carolina. Each had arrived from home, respectively in California and Wisconsin, by hitching rides on available flights. The two were paired for a four-day trip in various airplanes that they would swap with other crews as they proceeded, in order to keep the airplanes in nearly constant motion, for revenue generation and efficiency. Crews cannot be treated the same way. This was to be Sullenberger’s first run in nearly two weeks, and he was well rested. Over the previous year, he had logged approximately 770 hours of flight time, an average of 16 hours a week, not counting the additional duty time on the ground, or the frequent transcontinental commutes—necessary because he chose to live so far from his assigned base. Skiles had flown at about the same leisurely pace, though also commuting long-distance to work. He, too, was well rested. However poorly paid flying for the airlines has become, it allows for a lot of relaxation, or at least time spent at home. Indeed, it would be a particularly gentle profession, as it was before, were it not for the insecurity and turmoil that have followed the industry’s deregulation.
Among airlines that have survived, the turmoil has been nowhere worse than at US Airways. The company went into Chapter 11 bankruptcy in August 2002, and was able to hang on only because of government loan guarantees—part of the huge package of bailouts awarded to the airlines in the wake of the terrorist attacks of 2001, when air travel declined and financial mayhem ensued. US Airways then embarked on a campaign to slash costs by reducing its fleet, furloughing pilots, cutting salaries, eliminating pensions, and doing away with free meals on its flights. The mood was reflected at the time in a somehow desperate slogan: “Get On Board.” Please, goddamnit. The airline emerged from bankruptcy in 2003, only to be forced back into Chapter 11 a year later, in September 2004, as a result of high fuel prices and deadlocked negotiations with the pilots’ union. Afterward, employees had to make concessions again, and they were bitter about it.
US Airways cut its labor costs by $1 billion following the second bankruptcy, and brought its overhead closer to that of pareddown airlines like Southwest. Sullenberger later referred to the effect in his congressional testimony, when he spoke out against “airline management teams who have used airline employees as an ATM.” The airline executives Sullenberger had in mind were surely his own. In fairness, their hands had been tied by bankers imposing conditions for loans. The bankers in turn were eyeing the realities of a competitive market that is extremely sensitive to pricing, and in which customers, informed by the Internet, aggressively seek the best deals around. Morale at US Airways sank so low that during a Christmas snowstorm in 2004, angry flight attendants and ground personnel called in sick, causing the cancellation of several hundred flights, snarling traffic nationwide, and resulting in the stranding of many thousands of passengers. The airline blamed the weather. The government blamed mismanagement. US Airways seemed truly to be dying. The airline business in the United States does not exist on the rational calculation of gain so much as on inertia and fascination. For whatever reason, US Airways once again was saved. It happened in 2005, in the nick of time, when the Phoenix-based America West Airlines took over, assuming US Airways’s name, assets, and debt and allowing it to emerge once again from bankruptcy. America West had its own history of troubles, having gone through bankruptcy in the 1990s, and requiring a government loan of $380 million in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. This was an airline so close to the brink that it resorted to selling tray table advertising on its flights, and thought of this as an important innovation. It was nonetheless considered to be well run, and was able to bring big investors to the deal, including Airbus in Europe. The US Airways management team was fired, the America West name disappeared, and the now-former America West managers took over, moving the US Airways headquarters to their longtime Arizona base.
On January 12, 2009, when Sullenberger and Skiles met in Charlotte for their assigned four-day trip, the last of America West had recently disappeared from public view beneath the US Airways veneer. Whether for nostalgia or as a reminder of what had really happened and who was really in charge, the new radio call sign for all US Airways flights was the old “Cactus” of America West. Sullenberger did not approve, and he came up with a reason why. He said that during operations overseas—in Asia, Europe, and Latin America—foreign crews hearing “Cactus” on air traffic control frequencies might not correlate it to the US Airways paint scheme on the airplanes in sight, and so safety might be compromised. More likely, he simply resented the name.
Behind the façade of a unified airline, a war had broken out between the 3,400 original US Airways pilots and the 1,800 pilots of the former America West. These groups were known respectively as East and West. Their fight was about how to integrate the ranks and endorse a single unified contract with the company. Pilots in the East group (such as Sullenberger and Skiles) insisted that seniority be based purely on the date of hire, while pilots in the West group (who typically were newer to the profession) insisted that they had not bailed out US Airways only to drop to the bottom of the scale. It was a significant fight, because the ranking of pilots governs the terms of their jobs, including pay, schedule, routes, and the airplanes they fly. In the fracas, the East pilots had forced the entire lot to pull out of the once-powerful national union, which seemed to have sided with the America West crowd, and had formed a company-specific bargaining unit they called the US Airline Pilots Association. (This is the union that handled Sullenberger after the crash and was represented as an official party at the NTSB hearings in Washington.) The West pilots had reacted by forming another group, appropriately named the America West Airlines Pilots Protective Alliance. For three years now, these two groups were going at each other in court, working under separate contracts, and refusing to integrate in the cockpits. It was a shame, and they were all weaker for it. They were working in a bare-bones industry, and fighting over scraps.
You dealt with it as you could. You got by in life. Skiles had gone into the house-building business presumably because he had some knowledge in that area. On the website for the company he formed, he wrote, “Skiles Builders LLC is committed to building affordable, elegant homes. Our personal involvement and pride of workmanship ensure a superior product. Our homes are designed and constructed with both classic design and practical usability in mind. The highest quality products, skilled craftsmanship and exceptional detailing produce a home with a character and personality uniquely your own. From vision to reality we make your dreams happen.”
As for Sullenberger, he had hung out a shingle as a safety consultant and had founded his own company, Safety Reliability Methods, Inc., behind a website in which the “About Us” section makes it clear that the “us” is him alone. At the start of a two-page résumé, he describes himself as follows:
BOTTOM-LINE DRIVEN MANAGER SUPPORTED BY PROGRESSIVELY RESPONSIBLE EXPERIENCE ACROSS 40+ YEARS IN THE AVIATION INDUSTRY. POSSESS IN-DEPTH UNDERSTANDING OF AVIATION OPERATIONS ACQUIRED THROUGH REAL-WORLD FLIGHT EXPERIENCE, PROFESSIONAL TRAINING AND LEADERSHIP ROLES WITH ONE OF THE WORLD’S LEADING AIRLINES. HISTORY OF ACHIEVEMENT IN SAFETY, INNOVATION, CREW TRAINING, OPERATIONAL IMPROVEMENT, COST SAVINGS, PRODUCTIVITY IMPROVEMENT AND CUSTOMER SERVICE. COMBINE STRONG INDUSTRY KNOWLEDGE AND BUSINESS LEADERSHIP SKILLS TO CONSISTENTLY MANAGE COMPLEX SCHEDULING, LEAD HIGH-PERFORMANCE, MOTIVATED TEAMS AND IMPLEMENT EFFICIENT PROCESSES THAT ENSURE SMOOTH OPERATIONS AND QUALITY CUSTOMER SERVICE. STRONG COMMUNICATOR, EFFECTIVE NEGOTIATOR AND MOTIVATIONAL TEAM BUILDER; ABLE TO EFFECTIVELY COMMUNICATE NEEDS AND MERGE DISPARATE TEAMS IN THE SUPPORT OF MARKET OBJECTIVES. RESPECTED FOR WIDE RANGE OF INDUSTRY KNOWLEDGE, SOLID SENSE OF INTEGRITY AND DEMONSTRATED PASSION FOR INDUSTRY AS A WHOLE AS EVIDENCED BY LIFELONG CAREER OF FLYING.
In other words, he was an airline pilot. His need to compensate for the loss of income was painfully evident in the enterprise. There was something endearing in the very rigidity of the language, and in a large photograph on the website that showed him smiling in his airline pilot uniform, with captain’s stripes on the sleeves. He was obviously a decent man. He was straining to broaden out. He had landed an affiliation as a visiting scholar at the University of California, Berkeley, at the Center for Catastrophic Risk Management—a construct that seems to have been designed for the purpose of hunting grants. Maybe the affiliation would help.
Sullenberger and Skiles certainly had time for these secondary pursuits, however unexpected in their lives. But on the afternoon of January 12, when they joined up in Charlotte, North Carolina, they set their financial concerns aside to do their job. Both men were feeling cheerful. They met the three flight attendants, Donna Dent, Sheila Dail, and Doreen Welsh. Donna Dent was the lead. She was a short-haired woman, age fifty-one, who had joined the airline in 1982 and had been flying with it for twenty-six years. Even more experienced was Sheila Dail, who at the age of fifty-seven still retained the looks once required for the job. She had joined the airline in 1980, as Sullenberger had, more than twenty-eight years earlier. But the real veteran of the crew was Doreen Welsh, now fifty-eight, who had joined US Airways when it was called Allegheny and she was twenty years old, in the dim and distant past of 1970. For reference, in 1970 Richard Nixon was in his first term in office, the war in Vietnam was raging, U.S. forces invaded Cambodia, protesters were shot dead in Ohio at Kent State University, Jimi Hendrix died young, and Barack Obama was nine years old. Furthermore, airline deregulation was still eight years ahead. However understandable Sullenberger’s laments may be about the loss of flight crews’ income, it must be said that he—like Skiles, Dent, and Dail—joined the airlines after the deregulation of the industry, when it was obvious that the unions would eventually be undermined by market forces, and that the unnaturally high salaries at the time simply could not be sustained. In that sense, among the five members of the crew, only Doreen Welsh could make a legitimate claim to having been blindsided by history. Incredibly, she had hung on throughout the ordeal, and had walked the aisles for thirty-eight years. You get the picture. Between the pilots up front and the flight attendants in the cabin, this was not a crew you wanted to complain to about the peanuts.
On the first leg of the trip, they hauled a load of passengers from Charlotte to San Francisco, a six-hour flight, which put them on the ground in California at 9:19 p.m. local time. Sullenberger drove home to Danville and went to bed at 11:00. He says he is regular about sleep, and good at it. He likes eight hours to feel rested. In the morning he rose at 7:00 and had breakfast with the children. Four hours later he left the house and drove to the airport for a 12:20 show time. Skiles had spent the night in a hotel, and had walked for about an hour before going to sleep. In the morning he had gone for another walk, for five or six miles, before returning to the hotel room and catching a ride to the airport on time. Presumably the flight attendants had enjoyed equally restful stays.
It was January 13, the second day of the trip. They picked up their assigned Airbus at the gate, loaded the passengers, took off from San Francisco at 1:15, and crossed the country to Pittsburgh in just under five hours. They landed at 9:00 p.m. eastern time and went to a hotel by the airport for a short ten-hour layover. They woke up early, took a 6:00 a.m. van to the airport, flew a flight to New York’s LaGuardia Airport, and, after a delay there, flew back to Pittsburgh with a typical New York load of provincial tourists and burned-out business travelers. That was their workday. It was January 14. Because they landed early and had a long layover until the next morning, they went to a hotel downtown for the distractions of the city. It was snowing. Sullenberger took a walk, ate dinner alone, answered emails, and went to bed early. Skiles went to see a movie—Gran Torino, Clint Eastwood; it was really good. He had nothing alcoholic to drink, and had not had for ten years. Sullenberger was more of a drinker: he had had a beer ten days before. Skiles returned to the hotel and slept.
The day of the accident, January 15, was the fourth and last day of the trip. The crew left the downtown hotel at 7:30 in the morning in a van. At the airport Sullenberger ate a banana and a raisin bagel with cream cheese. Skiles ate nothing, which was normal for him at that hour. Their first run was to Charlotte, in a new stretched Airbus A321, which they were eager to fly. After pushing back from the gate, they had the airplane deiced. They lifted off from Pittsburgh at 8:56 in the morning, and two hours later they landed, after a typically uneventful flight. In Charlotte they switched airplanes for a scheduled flight to LaGuardia. The assigned airplane was a 150-passenger Airbus A320, about nine years old, a veteran of 16,298 flights and 25,239 hours of operation. Two days earlier, on a flight from LaGuardia, its right engine had burped because of a faulty temperature probe. The airline’s mechanics had replaced the probe. The airplane was in excellent shape.
Skiles had a slice of pizza in the Charlotte terminal before settling with Sullenberger into the cockpit. The departure was slightly delayed because of snowfall from a cold front passing over New York, but at noon they lifted off from Charlotte. Crews usually alternate duties during trips, with one pilot and then the other doing the principal flying, and normally it would have been Skiles’s turn to fly. But because he was still new to the Airbus and not yet authorized to land on runways contaminated with slush or snow, Sullenberger took the run. It was something over two hours long. By the time they got to New York, the cold front had passed, the snow had stopped falling, and the skies were rapidly clearing. The temperature at LaGuardia was twenty-one degrees Fahrenheit, and a brisk north wind was blowing. The visibility was superb. The runways were dry. Sullenberger landed the airplane and taxied to the gate at 2:23 in the afternoon.
At LaGuardia, the flight attendants disembarked their passengers and began to take on more—a full load of 150 people, who had been milling around and waiting as usual. They formed an average crowd for the airline, including ninety-five men, fifty-two women, two little girls ages six and four, and a baby boy nine months old. The baby did not have a child seat, and would sit perched unrestrained on his mother’s lap. The father was also on the flight, as was another of the family’s children, the four-year-old girl just mentioned. The family could not sit together, and made a fuss about it. The father and daughter ended up several rows behind the mother and son. The cabin was full except for a middle seat in the last row. Twenty-three passengers were Bank of America employees. One was an Australian folk singer. Two were pilots for other companies, riding for free. The oldest passenger was a woman of eighty-five, who moved with difficulty and needed a walker. She was accompanied by her daughter, who was fifty-eight. The average age of the men was forty-two. The average age of the women was forty-four. The shortest passenger was the baby boy, who measured 2 feet 5 inches long. He was the lightest aboard, at 23 pounds. The tallest passenger was a man of 6 feet 6 inches, who weighed 230 pounds. Somehow he squeezed into a window seat in the economy section. The heaviest passenger was a woman of 5 feet 4 inches who weighed 293 pounds. She squeezed into an aisle seat farther back. The average size of the men was 5 feet 11 inches, at 191 pounds. The average size of the women was 5 feet 5 inches, at 148 pounds. These are close to the averages for adult Americans. The boarding was pretty standard, too, with people blocking the aisle and cramming things into the overhead bins, one seat double-assigned, and flight attendants with barely repressed impatience urging people to hurry and sit down. While these unpleasantries transpired, Skiles did a routine walk-around of the airplane outside in the cold, and as usual found nothing wrong. Sullenberger bought an average sandwich in the terminal and went back to the cockpit, expecting to eat in flight. This was to be the final run of the four-day trip, a return to Charlotte as Flight 1549. It was Skiles’s turn to do the primary flying, though with Sullenberger still ultimately in charge.
They had battled 185-mile-per-hour headwinds coming north to New York, but would gain advantage now by riding the same winds south. Skiles expressed amazement that the difference in flight time would be nearly an hour. The comment was conversational. It appears near the start of the official transcript of the cockpit voice recording recovered after the accident. The time was 3:03 p.m., and they were ready to be pushed back from the gate. The cabin doors were closed, and the emergency slides were armed to inflate automatically if the doors were opened. One of the flight attendants addressed the cabin. “If everyone would please take their seats . . .” Shortly afterward a flight attendant came to the pilots in cockpit and said, “Seated and stowed.”
Sullenberger said, “Thank you, all set.” The flight attendant shut the cockpit door, but it did not latch. Sullenberger said, “Okay, that darned door again.”
Actually, it’s not clear that he said “darned.” The transcript inserts a prudish hash mark, “#,” in the place of expletives. I guess he might have called it a “damned” door, but given his cockpit demeanor, it is hard to escalate beyond that. A goddamned door? Unlikely. A fucking door? It’s inconceivable, though fucking this and fucking that is common cockpit talk.
Skiles said, “What’s wrong?”
“You have to slam it pretty hard.”
Apparently the flight attendant slammed the door. Afterward, no terrorist could breeze in unannounced. Referring to the reported weather, Sullenberger said, “Got the newest Charlotte.” The weather there was fine.
In the cabin a flight attendant said, “Ladies and gentlemen, all electronic devices have to be turned off at this time.” They were still hooked up to the tug and rolling backward on the ramp. LaGuardia was using Runway 31 for arrivals, and Runway 4 for departures. Runway 31 points to the northwest, on a compass heading of 310 degrees. Runway 4 points to the northeast, on a compass heading of 40 degrees. The runways cross. When LaGuardia is operating according to this plan, each airplane takes off after another one lands. Landing airplanes have priority for obvious reasons, but it is important not to let too many of them in without releasing others to fly, because LaGuardia is a cramped airport, rapidly overloaded by accumulations on the ground. That is the controllers’ concern more than it is the pilots’, though both groups have efficiency in mind. Safety is an underlying issue, but with that already in hand, what counts is to keep the passengers moving. In and out, in and out, there are only three major airports for New York, and among them they have to keep the great city alive. The threshold to Runway 31 is close to the US Airways terminal, and the threshold to Runway 4 is distant. Sullenberger said, “I was hoping we could land on four and take off on thirty-one, but it didn’t quite work out that way.”
Skiles said, “Well, we can make an attempt to beat Northwest here anyways.” He was referring to another airliner getting ready to go.
Sullenberger is not the sort to be rushed. He said, “What’s that?”
Skiles said, “So we can make an attempt to beat Northwest, but he’s already starting, isn’t he.”
“Yeah. And we have to pull up before we can even start on this.”
In the cabin a flight attendant gave the ever-expanding safety talk: the seat belts, the signs and lighted pathways, the eight emergency exits, two in the front, two in the back, and four over the wings, the four inflatable slides, the oxygen masks that will drop if needed, the do-not-hide-in-the-bathrooms-and-try-to-smoke-after-disabling-the-smoke-detectors, the thank-you-for-flying-our-miserable-airline. The passengers suffered through it for several minutes with varying degrees of indifference. The flight attendant explained that the seat bottoms could be used as flotation devices. Paradoxically, as it turned out, one thing she neglected to say was that because this particular airplane happened to be approved for extended offshore use, its emergency slides were of a sort that could be detached from the fuselage as life rafts, and every seat was equipped with a life vest stored in a pocket underneath. The omission was company policy, and it was not strictly illegal, because the run to Charlotte would not take Flight 1549 offshore, as offshore is defined in the regulations. For an overland flight such as this, the federal government required a briefing on the seat-bottom flotation, but only recommended one on the existence and use of life vests. US Airways was in a stingy mood. Indeed, the airplane had previously been equipped with a video system that briefed the passengers on all the safety equipment aboard, but the system had been disconnected to shave a few pennies from the overall operating costs, and flight attendants had been forced back out into the aisles—day in, day out, for reduced wages—with instructions to do the least to get by. This helps to explain why so many passengers on Flight 1549 ended up without life vests, standing on the sinking wings. For the management at US Airways, it was lucky that none of them drowned.
The pilots started the engines. In the cockpit this entailed rotating a knob to “Ignition/Start,” and flipping each engine’s master switch from “Off” to “On.” The procedure was miraculously easy compared to those of the old manual starts. The pilots dealt with the left engine first, then the right. They monitored the indications of engine speed, fuel flow, and temperature. It took a couple of minutes. Skiles spoke of Delta’s recent acquisition of Northwest Airlines. He said, “Wonder how the Northwest and Delta pilots are gettin’ on.”
Sullenberger said, “I wonder about that, too . . . I have no idea . . . Yeah, hopefully better than we and West do.”
“Be hard to do worse.”
“Yeah. Well, I hadn’t heard much about it lately. But I can’t imagine it’d be any better.”
LaGuardia Ground Control instructed them to taxi to Runway 4. While proceeding, Skiles confirmed the initial clearance after takeoff—an immediate left turn to a heading of north (360 degrees) and a climb to 5,000 feet. There were delays on the way to the runway. The pilots went through the brief pre-takeoff checks. Ground Control put them in line behind Northwest and told them to switch to the primary frequency, known as “Local,” or simply “LaGuardia Tower.” The Tower controls movements on the runways and in the immediate vicinity of the airport. Business that afternoon was fairly relaxed for LaGuardia, but would have been considered intense at most other airports. There are airports in some countries where the control tower is hardly more than an employment refuge: controllers in those places sit silent for hours (and sometimes days) before getting to say the obvious to some flight crew that happens along—“cleared for takeoff” or “cleared to land.” At LaGuardia it’s not like that. The controllers are virtuoso performers. When Sullenberger and Skiles switched over to the Tower frequency, the Local controller was not only handling inbounds and outbounds on crossing run-ways, but, for additional sport, was also interweaving the movements of three Port Authority snowplow teams. His name was Anthony Wajda. He had been a controller for eight years, and had transferred to LaGuardia less than three months before. He was not hesitant by nature. He considered traffic to be light. He was keeping New York alive. It sounded like this:
WAJDA: United 672, you can exit on Tango behind US Air, or go down to Sierra, your choice. Ground, point seven.
UNITED: Looks like we’ll make Tango behind US Air. We’ll call ground. United 672.
WAJDA: Thank you. American 753, cleared for takeoff Runway 4.
AMERICAN: Clear for takeoff, 753.
WISCONSIN (inbound): Tower, Wisconsin 3650 cleared to land . . .
WAJDA: Wisconsin 3650, 31, wind 010 at 10, traffic will depart off 4.
WISCONSIN: 31, cleared to land, Wisconsin 3650.
US AIRWAYS (inbound): 2131 over the tanks.
WAJDA: Cactus 2131, LaGuardia Tower, number two. I will have your landing clearance shortly.
US AIRWAYS: Roger.
WAJDA (to a snowplow): Team 3, you can proceed onto Runway 4. Just remain south of the intersection 31.
SNOWPLOW: Tower, uh, Team 3, uh, will like to go up, uh, Double Alpha onto the intersection, sir.
WAJDA: Ah, that’s going to be a problem. We have too many arrivals right now, but that . . . You have some other thing you want to do first, until final lightens up?
SNOWPLOW: Uh, we’ll just stand by, uh, or if you can give us, give us clearance onto, uh, 4, we’ll do, uh, Papa.
WAJDA: Yeah, you can do Papa right now if you want to proceed onto 4 on Papa. Just remain south of 31.
SECOND SNOWPLOW: Tower, Team 2.
WAJDA: Team 2.
SECOND SNOWPLOW: Team 2 like to proceed on Runway 4 at Fox.
WAJDA: Team 2, you can proceed onto 4 at Foxtrot.
SECOND SNOWPLOW: Team 2 proceeding.
WAJDA: American 753, contact Departure.
AMERICAN: See you.
WAJDA: Wisconsin 3650, Ground, point seven.
WISCONSIN: Good afternoon, ’Consin 3650.
WAJDA: Cactus 2131 cleared to land 31, wind 010 [at] 10.
US AIR: Cleared to land 31, Cactus 2131.
DELTA (inbound): Delta 1356 coming up the freeway.
WAJDA: Delta 1356, LaGuardia Tower, you can start reducing. You’re about 50 knots faster than the Airbus ahead.
DELTA: Got the anchor out.
This was a mere two-minute interval in Wajda’s day. He put Northwest into position on Runway 4, ready to roll through the first gap offered by the inbound traffic and the plows. By no means was he yet working at his full capacity. One gets the feeling he was simultaneously juggling eggs and maybe playing Scrabble, just to limber up for the evening rush still to come. At 3:21 he put Sullenberger and Skiles into position at the top of Runway 4, where he held them for four minutes while two airplanes landed on the crossing runway and the snowplows continued to work. In the cockpit Sullenberger said, “Your brakes, your aircraft.” With this he assigned the handling of the primary flight controls to Skiles.
Skiles formally agreed. He said, “My aircraft.”
At 3:25 Wajda cleared them for takeoff.
They pushed the throttles forward.
Skiles said, “TOGA,” for “takeoff go-around thrust.”
Sullenberger said, “TOGA set.” The airplane accelerated down the runway. Sullenberger called out a speed: “Eighty.”
Skiles eased his control stick back to raise the nose. The wings bit into the air, and the airplane lifted smoothly off the ground. Sullenberger confirmed the climb. He said, “Positive rate.”
Skiles said, “Gear up, please.”
Sullenberger retracted the landing gear. “Gear up.”
Wajda radioed, “Cactus 1549, contact New York Departure, good day.”
Sullenberger answered, “Good day.” They were passing through 700 feet, accelerating through 230 miles per hour, and banking left to go north, on the initial climb to 5,000 feet. In the cabin some passengers had already fallen asleep.