First officer from ‘Miracle on the Hudson' shares story in Salt Lake City

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SALT LAKE CITY -- When Captain Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger ditched US Airways Flight 1549 in the Hudson River last year, we learned much more about the dangers of birds in a flight path.

This week, Salt Lake City is hosting the 12th Annual Joint Meeting of the Bird Strike Committees of the United States and Canada. Jeff Skiles was the first officer sitting next to Sullenberger for the "Miracle on the Hudson," and he shared his story Tuesday.

Bird and other wildlife strikes to aircraft cause well over $600 million in damage to U.S. civil and military aviation annually. -Bird Strike Committee USA

He says landing that plane safely wasn't just a miracle; it took teamwork, training and preparation to save all 155 people on board.

"When you're placed in such dire circumstances, your training takes over," Skiles said.

Skiles has worked for 24 years as a US Airways first officer and captain. But he says professional pilots do not have any procedures for dual-engine failure at low altitude.

Over 219 people have been killed worldwide as a result of wildlife strikes since 1988. -Bird Strike Committee USA

That's what happened when Flight 1549 took two geese in each engine January 15, 2009, shortly after taking off from LaGuardia Airport in New York City.

"By the time we assess the situation, try to start the engines and realize that probably isn't going to happen, we're too low and losing altitude rapidly," he said.

There were 87,715 bird and bat strikes in the U.S. between 1990 and 2008- increasing from 1,742 in 1990 to 7,332 in 2008. -FAA

They considered three options: return to LaGuardia, head for Teterboro Airport in New Jersey or crash land in the Hudson River. With both engines gone and the aircraft losing altitude rapidly, Skiles said only one option was realistic.

"The Hudson becomes our choice for landing," Skiles said. "It's broad, it's flat, and if we're going to strike off across land to reach an airport, we'd have to be sure that we could make it."

Who is... Jeff Skiles?
Jeff Skiles was the first officer on US Airways Flight 1549 that crashed landed on the Hudson River on January 15, 2009. He worked as a flight instructor and as a pilot for several smaller airlines before being hired by US Airways in 1986. Skiles, who has logged over 20,000 hours in the sky, has a new career as a public speaker telling the story of the successful outcome of the 'Miracle on the Hudson.'

As all of this was going on, Skiles was busy with a flight checklist and talking with the control tower while multiple alerts were going off in the cockpit.

"Through all this noise, Sully had the presence of mind to reach back, grab the public address phone and give the command, 'This is the captain. Brace for impact,'" Skiles said.

The flight crew went through their emergency procedures. Passengers sent final texts to loved ones, wrote notes and stuffed them in their pockets and prepared to crash.

"The airplane hit hard on the tail," Skiles said. "Then the river just seemed to flow over the airplane. Water cascaded over the windshield. But then it popped up and it was just bobbing in the waves."

Skiles quipped it wasn't the worst landing he'd ever been part of, but they still had to get everyone safely off the plane. Everyone evacuated safely, but bird strikes take quite a toll on the airline industry. Since 1988, more than 219 people have been killed worldwide as a result of bird strikes.

Skiles said the power of the whole crew working together saved those passengers.

"There were so many people involved and so many people who deserve recognition for what happened that day," he said. "Every one of them was critical to the outcome."

Skiles said their operation is not that different from teams that work together in industries across the country.

"The basic principles that we use in the cockpit to work with one another are the same things that anybody does in any business they work in," he said. "We have to do it at a much higher level because there's much more at stake."

Sullenberger has retired since that landing in the Hudson. Skiles says he still has many more years left in the cockpit. He lives in Madison, Wis. with his wife and three children.



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Jed Boal


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