Capt. Sully Sullenberger Recounts Landing on Hudson River

NTSB begins three-day hearing on "miracle landing" of US Airways Flight 1549.

June 9, 2009— -- The pilot who landed US Airways flight 1549 on New York City's Hudson River in January recounted his performance today at a hearing on the experience in Washington, D.C.

Capt. Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger recalled his decision to land the plane carrying 155 people on the water as investigators began a three-day examination of the so-called "Miracle on the Hudson."

Sullenberger said he and his right-hand man -- after, ironically, admiring the view of the river -- had precisely the same reaction when the plane touched down with a splash.

"First Officer Jeff Skiles and I turned to each other and, almost in unison, at the same time, with the same words, said to each other, 'Well, that wasn't as bad as I thought.'"

Watch "World News With Charles Gibson" tonight at 6:30 ET for the full report.

Indeed, the transcript from the cockpit voice recorder released today mirrors what was evident in the audio recordings between air traffic control and US Airways Flight 1549 released in February: Capt. Sullenberger and his crew kept their cool.

"We didn't have time to consult all the written guidance, we didn't have time to complete the appropriate checklists," Sullenberger said today at the National Transportation Safety Board. "So Jeff Skiles and I had to work almost intuitively in a very close-knit fashion without having a chance to verbalize every decision, every part of the situation. By observing each others' actions and hearing our transmissions and our words to others, we were able to quickly be on the same page, know what had needed to be done, and begin to do it."

"We're all so thankful," passenger Billy Campbell said Tuesday. "The most difficult thing, and I would assume many of us share this, is seeing the other flights that don't end this way. You know, I came home and about three weeks after this and saw on the news the Buffalo flight, and then obviously, we're all terribly saddened by what's happened with Air France."

Not long after saying, "What a view of the Hudson today," Sullenberger and Skiles proceeded calmly through the emergency landing, according to the cockpit voice recorder.

"Got flaps two, you want more?" Skiles asked Sullenberger in the minute before landing on the river,

"No, let's stay at two," Sullenberger said.

"Got any ideas?" Sullenberger then asked.

Just 17 seconds later, Sullenberger said, "We're gonna brace."

Read the transcript of the audio recordings or listen to the conversation with air traffic control.

"When we did hit, I almost felt like I was on the cruise ship because as I looked out the window, the plane submerged, and it felt like almost looking out a porthole because we were underwater," he said. "We then sort of bounced, came up, skidded, and it all happened obviously very quickly."

"When we finally came to a stop -- you know, sort of feeling the miracle of 'wow, survived this crash' -- immediately water was rushing out of my window. Very quickly, I talked to the two fellows sitting next to me, in B and C, said "Let's go, let's go, we have to go to the back."

Campbell said he was the last passenger to go out on one of the rafts, and grabbed Sullenberger's arm on the way out to say thank you.

"He very humbly just said to me, "You're welcome,'" Campbell said.

Sullenberger on Bird Strikes and Pilot Experience

The hearing also examined the dangers posed by bird strikes. Sullenberger landed on the Hudson Jan. 15 after the plane struck Canada geese upon taking off from New York's LaGuardia airport.

"There were many birds," Sullenberger said today. "They were very large, and they filled the entire windscreen."

The transportation board previously said it found no problems with either engine up to the point when the bird strikes were reported.

In late April, travelers were able to get their first glimpse of federal data documenting where and how often planes hit birds when the Federal Aviation Administration made public its bird strike data for the first time.

Many travelers had argued they had a right to know where and when bird strikes happen after the emergency landing of US Airways flight 1549.

The database includes reports of fewer than 3,000 bird strikes per year for the first several years of reporting from 1990 through 1994. The numbers increase from there, hitting a peak of 9,650 bird strikes in 2007. In total, FAA data indicates there have been more than 73,000 bird strikes in the United States in the past eight years.

Still, Sullenberger said warnings they get about birds aren't always helpful.

"In my experience, the warnings we get are general in nature and not specific and therefore have limited usefulness," he testified.

Sullenberger also told NTSB members he has about 20,000 hours of flying time -- and said that experience paid off. His comments came on the same day that concerns about pilot training and experience prompted the FAA to begin immediately focusing on regional airlines' training programs to make sure they're up to par.

"I think that [experience] allowed me to focus clearly on the highest priorities at every stage of the flight without having to constantly refer to written guidance," Sullenberger said.

"No matter how much technology is available, an airplane is still just ultimately an airplane," he later added. "The physics are the same and basic skills may ultimately be required when either the automation fails or it's no longer appropriate to use it."

In the aftermath of the crash, several survivors told their stories, recalling that just before the water landing, the pilot told passengers to "brace for impact" and flight attendants shouted out "brace, brace, heads down."

"I chose my words carefully," Sullenberger said today.

As for any regrets, Sullenberger said, "I tend to think I wish I'd had more time to more fully apprise the flight attendants of the situation that we faced."

Still, he credited his flight attendants and passengers for a smooth evacuation once the plane was on the water. Once in the river, the flight crew quickly opened the forward doors to deploy the evacuation slides, which double as life rafts, and passengers scrambled out the front and over-wing exits.

"People were moving quickly, but there did not seem to be any panic," he said. "I think it's largely a result of the flight attendant crew being so professional and by exhibiting an outward, calm, professional demeanor, the passengers responded in kind and behaved very well."

"She was nails," Campbell said of one of the flight attendants. "She was courageous, she was direct, she didn't hesitate to say 'Turn around, you have to go to the front,' she waited until all of us had gone to the front. She was heroic."

Sullenberger also praised response teams in New York, including four ferries that arrived on the scene within eight minutes. "As soon as I left the airplane, there were boats already around us beginning the rescue," he said.

On Jan. 18, crews raised the wreckage from the river and moved the plane to New Jersey for examination. The left engine was later recovered from the Hudson Jan. 23.

ABC News' Matt Hosford and Olivia Hallihan contributed to this report.

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