Sully Sullenberger: Heroic pilot from Bay Area recalls landing on Hudson River

OAKLAND (KTVU) -- It's been almost 8 years since a pilot from the East Bay became an American hero by doing what no other commercial airline pilot has done before: Landing a passenger jet on the icy waters of the Hudson River in New York.

The effort by U.S. Airways pilot Capt. Sully Sullenberger - known as the Miracle on the Hudson -- saved all 155 passengers on board Flight 1549 on Jan. 15, 2009. The emergency landing has now been recreated for the big screen by two big A-list stars.

Tom Hanks stars as Sullenberger and the film, which is playing in theaters now, was directed by Clint Eastwood.

Although it is approaching 8 years since the incident happened, Sullenberger, who is from Danville, said in an interview with KTVU that the moment remains etched in his mind.

"I remember it very accurately and very specifically," he said. "It's the evacuation that's kind of a blur (but) not the flight itself."

He said he began thinking about where he could land the plane when it became clear he would have to make an emergency landing.

"I knew from experience that the only other place in the entire New York area, one of the most densely populated and developed areas on the planet where it would be possible even to attempt to land a large airliner, was the Hudson River and that was my least bad option and I was glad to have it."

Sullenberger said many things "could have gone wrong" in the seconds following the crippling bird strike that prompted the emergency landing.

"It's important for everybody to know that we had never trained for this sort of event," he said. "In fact, in our flight simulators that we used at the time it was not possible to practice a water landing."

Sullenberger said the rapid descent of the airliner was equivalent to descending in a hotel elevator 2 floors per second.

"So I knew it would be a hard landing," he recalls. "I just didn't know how hard because we'd never done this before.

"we had to touch down with the wings exactly level so the plane didn't cartwheel one way or the other," he said. "We had to touch down with the minimum rate of descent that we could to keep the airplane intact so it would float."

Moments after plane touched down on the icy water on that bitterly cold January day, the story generated live coverage on KTVU and other news media outlets.

Now that the Miracle on the Hudson has hit the big screen, Sullenberger suggests that it has been an interesting experience to have his life turned into a big screen production.

"Giving someone else the rights to tell your life writ large on the big screen is a huge leap of faith," he said, suggesting that he is happy with how the film's portrayal of that day has turned out.

"I was amazed at how hard (Hanks and Eastwood) worked to get even the small details right," Sullenberger said. "Especially about the flying part."

The hearings by federal transportation regulators into the emergency landing lasted for 15 months and Sullenberger recalls that it was a very stressful time.

"It was only through the course of the investigation that our understanding of the event was found to be accurate (and) that our actions were validated," he said. "But for many months we didn't know if ultimately that would be found to be the case."

"It was this odd sense of people are celebrating on the street but that isn't how we felt for a very long time," said his wife, Lorrie. "We actually didn't celebrate until a year-and-a-half later.

The couple says the incident has inspired them to put the incident to good use.

Said Lorrie: "This affected people in such a personal way and we felt this obligation not just to the passengers on the flight but how it made Americans feel and the hope that it gave them."

Sullenberger said the Miracle on the Hudson gave him a platform to help improve the safety of travelers.

"That's a responsibility I take very seriously," he said. "And I'm not done yet."

By KTVU anchor Julie Haener.