Chesley Sullenberger spent practically his whole life preparing for the five-minute crucible that was US Airways Flight 1549.
He got his pilot’s licence at 14, and even studied the psychology of how cockpit crews behave in a crisis. When the ultimate test came on a descent over the Hudson River, he spoke into the intercom with remarkable calm.
The cabin was almost completely silent when Sullenberger came on the intercom seconds before the plane hit water.
“I can tell you verbatim: ‘Brace for impact,’” said Mark Hood of Charlotte, North Carolina, who was flying home after a work trip. “He said it in a calm, cool, controlled voice.”
“Had he let any tension leak into his voice,” Hood said, “it would have been magnified in the passengers.”
On Friday, the 57-year-old pilot fielded a congratulatory call from President George W. Bush.
The pilot’s wife, Lorraine, called her husband a “pilot’s pilot” who “loves the art of the airplane”.
Sullenberger served in the Air Force from 1973 to 1980. The Air Force said he was a flight leader in Europe and the Pacific and led war-game exercises over Nevada. He became a commercial pilot in 1980.
In the cockpit with Sullenberger on Thursday was a 49-year-old co-pilot, Jeffrey Skiles. “I know he did everything he could,” his mother, Deloris Skiles, said on Friday.
As the cabin took on water, Sullenberger climbed out of the jet only after the four other crew members and 150 passengers made their orderly exit. When he reached a raft, someone on a ferry tossed him a knife, and he cut away the tether to the jet.
One by one, the passengers were plucked to safety from the rafts, Hood and Sullenberger the last ones left. The passenger insisted the pilot get off first, but Sullenberger refused. He had been the last off the plane, and he would be the last off the raft.