January 15, 2009: What is The Miracle on the Hudson?

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A Brief History

On January 15, 2009, US Airways Flight 1549 flew into the annals of History when it became “The Miracle on the Hudson.”  An Airbus A32-214 jet liner had just taken off from New York City’s LaGuardia Airport, bound for Charlotte, North Carolina, when the twin jet powered airliner ran straight into a flock of Canada Geese, causing both engines to fail.  With no chance to return to the airport, the pilot had no choice other than to attempt a water landing (“ditching”) in the Hudson River.

Digging Deeper

Piloted by Chesley Sullenberger, age 57, a former US Air Force fighter pilot (F-4D Phantom II) and graduate of the US Air Force Academy, the plane was in exceptionally good hands.  “Sully,” as he is known to friends, was highly intelligent, a member of Mensa (the genius club) since age 12 and a pilot since age 16.  On top of his BS degree from the USAF Academy, he also has earned Masters Degrees from Purdue University and the University of Northern Colorado.  He had been employed by US Airways as a pilot since 1980, giving him a whopping 29 years of experience flying jetliners at the time of Flight 1549’s most notable incident.  You could hardly pick a better pilot to take control of a crisis in an airliner!  Sully has even worked as an instructor and aircraft accident investigator.

Sullenberger in January 2009

When his engines flamed out due to damage from the bird strike, Sully quickly determined only a water landing was a realistic way to save his passengers and crew while not endangering people on the ground.  He set the giant jetliner down on the Hudson River without hitting any watercraft or obstacles, resulting in a fantastically unusual clean and safe landing.  While the airplane remained afloat, all 150 passengers and 5 crew were disembarked and rescued by boats responding to assist.  (Only 5 people suffered serious injury, and none were killed.) Sullenberger was the last person off the plane.

Sully has always been known as a calm person, including in a crisis, and Flight 1549’s brush with disaster was no exception.  Along with Co-pilot Jeff Skiles, the 2 pilots calmly and efficiently handled the unpowered jet to virtual perfection.  Public acclaim for the valor and skill of Sullenberger and Skiles was immediate, the incident quickly becoming a sensation.  Sullenberger became a reluctant national hero, and the follow on investigation found the actions of Sullenberger and Skiles to be the correct actions to take in those circumstances.  Any thought that the plane may have returned to land at LaGuardia was to be unrealistic.

Aerial Photo of LaGuardia Airport

Sullenberger had become a celebrity, throwing out the first pitch of the 2009 baseball season for the San Francisco Giants and acting as Grand Marshall of the 2010 Tournament of Roses Parade.  He retired in 2010, and since has done charity appearances and made public service announcements.  Sully also has advocated for suicide prevention, and has turned down offers to support him in a run for elected office.  He has since authored 2 books and become an aviation expert commentator for CBS News, and was awarded the French Legion of Honor (Ordre nacional de la Legion d’honneur).  Cultural references to Flight 1549 and to Sullenberger abound, with songs, books, articles, and even movies about the incident.  Sullenberger was played by Tom Hanks in the 2016 film, Sully.  Sorry ladies, this 66 year old stud is married with 2 adopted daughters.

Theatrical release poster

The safe landing of Flight 1549 comes darn close to being a real life miracle, although the event came out with a happy ending because of the real world skill, experience, and coolness under pressure of Sullenberger and Skiles.  Sullenberger, as the commander, get most of the responsibility for what goes right and what goes wrong, and as such has become a major American icon.

Question for students (and subscribers): What other tales of unlikely survival in aircraft incidents can you think of?  Feel free to tell us which incident or incidents you deem worthy of note in the comments section below this article.

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Historical Evidence

For more information, please see…

Sullenberger, Chesley and Jeffrey ZaslowHighest Duty: My Search for What Really Matters.  HarperCollins, 2009.

The featured image in this article, a photograph by Greg L of the evacuation of US Airways Flight 1549 as it floats on the Hudson River, is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.  This image, which was originally posted to Flickr, was uploaded to Commons using Flickr upload bot on  by Multichill. On that date, it was confirmed to be licensed under the terms of the license indicated.


About Author

Major Dan is a retired veteran of the United States Marine Corps. He served during the Cold War and has traveled to many countries around the world. Prior to his military service, he graduated from Cleveland State University, having majored in sociology. Following his military service, he worked as a police officer eventually earning the rank of captain prior to his retirement.