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Published: Monday, 2/9/2009

US Airways pilot refects on 'sickening' feeling


NEW YORK - The pilot who ditched his jetliner in the Hudson River and saved the lives of everyone on board said he had a "sickening" feeling when a flock of birds disabled both engines with violent thuds, crippling the plane at 3,000 feet over the nation's most populous city.

Capt. Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger said in an interview with CBS' 60 Minutes that the sound of the geese hitting the plane and the burning-poultry odor entering the cabin were "shocking."

"Oh, you could hear them," he said. "Loud thumps. It felt like the airplane being pelted by heavy rain or hail. It sounded like the worst thunderstorm I'd ever heard growing up in Texas."

The interview with Mr. Sullenberger and the other four crew members - their first since US Airways Flight 1549 landed in the frigid water on Jan. 15 - was broadcast last night, .

Mr. Sullenberger said since then, he has second-guessed himself - especially at night in bed - even though all 155 people aboard survived.

He said he first couldn't forgive himself because he thought he could have done something different.

"The first few nights were the worst," he said. "When the 'what ifs' started."

He now calls his decision to land in the river "the only viable alternative" to attempting a return to LaGuardia Airport or landing in New Jersey.

Mr. Sullenberger said he knew he had to touch down with the wings level and the nose slightly up, and "at a descent rate that was survivable."

"Did you, at any point, pray?" CBS' Katie Couric asked.

"I would imagine somebody in back was taking care of that for me while I was flying the airplane," he said.

The flight attendants said they were surprised by the water landing.

"When I got out of my seat and saw that water, it was the most shocked I've ever been in my life," flight attendant Doreen Welsh said, adding that her emotions "had gone through, within seconds, accepting death and seeing life."

She said she "went crazy" and started yelling and pushing people to get them out because impact tore a hole in the plane's tail and water poured in.

"And as I was getting up, I thought I might actually live," Ms. Welsh said, "•'cause a second ago, I thought I was gone."

Mr. Sullenberger landed the plane near two ferry terminals, and boats appeared within minutes to effect a rescue.

When the pilot got word that everyone had survived, "I felt like the weight of the universe had been lifted off my heart," he said.

The crew met some of the passengers and their relatives at a reunion in Charlotte, the destination of Flight 1549.

"More than one woman came up to me and said, 'Thank you for not making me a widow,' " Mr. Sullenberger said. " 'Thank you for allowing my 3-year-old son to have a father.'•"

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