Opening cabin doors onto the Hudson River

It was Capt Chesley Sullenberger and First Officer Jeff Skiles that put the US Airways Airbus A320 safely down on the Hudson River, but it was the cabin crew that faced the job of getting the passengers out.

I spoke to two of Sullenberger’s cabin crew, Donna Dent and Sheila Dail, at the Guildhall in the City of London, just before the Guild of Air Pilots and Air Navigators annual awards banquet on 29 October.

The third cabin crew member, Doreen Welsh, could not attend that evening but she, seated as she was at the aft end of the cabin on that winter’s day as the aircraft came to rest on the river, watched as the damaged tail slowly dipped, and the dark, freezing water began to flow into the cabin ahead of her. Dent and Dail were near the forward doors, and I will let them tell their story:


Flight 1549 crew



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10 Responses to Opening cabin doors onto the Hudson River

  1. Will Horton 3 November, 2009 at 2:25 am #

    Was there any explanation as to why some passengers had life jackets on and others did not? From the video it sounds the crew did not instruct passengers to put the jackets on, so did the passengers take the initiative themselves?

  2. David Learmount 3 November, 2009 at 10:02 am #

    The answer is in the videos. The crew had 3min from engine failure to touchdown, and from the decision to ditch to touchdown was even less. The flightcrew’s only instruction to the cabin crew was to brace for impact. The cabin crew, in the video, state that they did not know, until they opened the doors, that they had landed on water.

  3. Roger.Ritchie 3 November, 2009 at 3:40 pm #

    The Sunday Times published a large photo of Capt. Sullenberger almost “sanctified” by the uplifted eyes and the glow of a stained glass window as background.
    So many professionals in the industry know that the good Captain did what he was trained to do and the elevation of his “heroic” deeds is inappropriate. Several organizations have enjoyed the “hero, when we need one” use of the ditching event on the Hudson – (even New York’s Mayor enjoyed the shared beam of Sully’s limelight) – but does this not demean all the other professionals who daily calculate a crosswind- landing and just as calmly bring their aircraft to the ground?
    The A320 performed as planned when robbed of engine-generated power and the marvels of fly-by-wire controls made the “landing” achievable by any one of thousands of equally “heroic” pilots with Airbus ratings.
    The Captain’s claim of the particular benefit of his many years of experience was the key to the success of the water-landing is open to question when almost any properly trained 100-hour Airbus pilot would have performed just as well.

  4. David Learmount 3 November, 2009 at 3:50 pm #

    Your point is well made, and perhaps necessary to balance the euphoria you refer to.

    But there is a difference between “would have” and “could have”. When things get dire, none of us knows quite how we’d react. We hope the training will kick in, and it may. But personality comes into the equation. A little doggedness goes a long way, and Sully has plenty of that.

    On the other hand, so do plenty of other pilots.

  5. Will Horton 7 November, 2009 at 5:24 am #

    Thanks, David, but I’m afraid you haven’t answered my question. My question was about life jackets, see above. And yes, I watched the videos. ;)

  6. David Learmount 7 November, 2009 at 12:51 pm #

    Sorry, I thought I’d answered by providing context, but I think a reminder that the cabin crew have no view of the outside world from where they sit in the galley areas might help. The passengers can see what’s happening outside through their windows, but the cabin crew cannot.

    Since the cabin crew were not warned by the pilots that the landing would be on water, they did not instruct the passengers during the descent to don lifejackets.

    The cabin crew did not know they had landed on water until they had opened the doors, and by that time the aft end of the cabin was beginning to sink. Their first action was to inflate the liferafts at the forward doors, and the second was to get passengers out, lifejackets or no. I suspect that those passengers wearing lifejackets had made their own decisions to don them because they could see what was happening before the cabin crew could. You heard Donna and Sheila say that it was the passengers near the overwing exits who operated those and climbed out onto the wing. They did not need any encouragement.

    I hope that helps.

  7. Bert Astrup 8 November, 2009 at 2:17 pm #

    I must agree with Mr. Richie.
    The entire crew did an exemplary job and for that I applaud them. However, since their accident occurred in “Prime Time” with full media coverage, these people have been given the proverbial “Golden Ring.”

    Two weeks earlier, the cabin crew from Continental flight 1404 evacuated its passengers from a burning aircraft with no fatalities. Have we seen them on various TV talk shows? Did they get the keys to Denver? Did they go to the Super Bowl? No, no, and no.

    The crews from both of these flights have a common bond, they are professionals. They both have been repeatedly trained to handle these types of emergencies and more. Both crews did the jobs they were expected to do.

    This media circus must end.

  8. David Learmount 8 November, 2009 at 6:11 pm #

    I’m afraid life isn’t fair. But this publicity is doing the air transport industry no harm. Indeed I believe it’s all positive.

    Every now and then ordinary travellers, who have begun to take air travel for granted, need to be reminded that things occasionally go wrong, which is why skilled, highly trained professional aviators need to be there for them. Media-created role models like Sully and his crew serve to remind everybody that aviation, at its best, is a noble art and science. This incident also gave Sully a chance to testify before the House, and he spelled out in no uncertain terms how the piloting profession is not valued by airlines or the public the way it used to be.

  9. C Hamilton 9 November, 2009 at 11:44 am #

    Totally agree your reply David. With the advancements in technology, and the especially automated systems on modern aircraft it is easy to “dumb-down” the job of the flight crew. It is the events like this, and sadly Air France 447 that highlights the fine line that exists in certain circumstances between a catastrophe and survival on every flight that we take.

  10. John Mcbean 10 November, 2009 at 11:20 pm #

    Greetings all, I enjoy the comments….
    Don’t forget the GIMLI GLIDER Air Canada 767 which ran out of fuel halfway to destination….the pilot was an accomplished glider afficionado and slipped that jet home in a once-in-a-career event…. No-one else was able to duplicate a successful landing in the simulator.
    Pilots get paid to deliver when the chips are down, I depend on that experience whenever I fly…