Ben Bostic’s business trip to New York City spanned only a couple of days…but it would forever change his life. Nine years ago today at 3:31 P.M. Eastern Standard Time, Ben and 154 others found themselves floating in the middle of the Hudson River.
Ben’s jet - US Airways Flight 1549 - hit a flock of geese a couple minutes after take-off from New York’s LaGuardia Airport and both engines of the Airbus 320-214 lost all thrust. What happened next was aptly described in news media at the time as the “Miracle on the Hudson” because everyone made it out alive…after hitting the water at more than 100 MPH.
It was not so much a crash landing as it was one of the safest water landings that a jet pilot ever made. It remains - by all accounts - an amazing feat of flying by pilot Chesley B. Sullenberger III - “Sully” to friends - and co-pilot Jeffrey Skiles. Passengers later described the impact as a “hard landing” though most didn’t know they were on water until looking out the aircraft’s porthole windows.
It’s incredible that every passenger and crewmember lived that day. The water temperature was 36 degrees Fahrenheit or slightly above two degrees Celsius. The air temperature was a bone-chilling 21 degrees Fahrenheit…with a wind-chill of just 11 degrees, or -6 degrees and -24 degrees Celsius, respectively.
That data was likely somewhere in the minds of Capt. Sullenberger and First-Officer Skiles…though probably not uppermost in their thoughts. They had work to do…and precious little time…about three-and-a-half minutes to react to the bird-strike and turn a state-of-the art commercial jet into a 150,000-pound glider and bring it safely to earth. US Air 1549 never climbed above 3,000 feet that afternoon…and it dropped 18 feet per second after losing power. There was little margin for error…analyses were done in seconds…fractions of seconds…truly under life-or-death pressure.
Consider for a moment that even an increase in the size and change in direction of waves on the Hudson that day…higher altitude and speed of the aircraft…the absence of seven nearby rescue vessels might all have conspired against them. Waves on the Hudson at the time were just a few inches. There were no cross winds…even a 10 MPH crosswind could have affected the belly landing…a tipped wing could have tumbled the aircraft. Visibility was clear for 10 miles. If you’re going to have an incident…best when Mother Nature isn’t working too much against you.
No doubt, Sully’s 40 years of flying experience and his co-pilot’s additional 20,000 hours in the sky made a difference that day. Sully had been one of a dozen freshmen at the United States Air Force Academy selected for a cadet glider program…and by the time he was a Sophomore he was an Instructor Pilot. When he graduated, he was named the “top flyer” in his class. Of course, not all pilots have those levels of knowledge and experience to be sure. Remember, there are hundreds of thousands of commercial jet flights every day…for decades…and only one other time have all hands survived such a jet landing on water.
In 1963, a 27-year-old Aeroflot pilot Victor Mostovoy landed a Tupolev Tu-124 jet in the Neva river near Leningrad (now St. Petersburg) and all 45 passengers and seven crew survived. A fast-thinking tugboat captain saved the day and those aboard by breaking the Russian aircraft’s windshield, tying a cable to the pilot’s yoke and towing it the length of a football field before everyone waded through shallow water to shore. Some days…it’s your lucky day...indeed.
Those who have near-death experiences…or survive events that no one usually does…probably look at life differently going forward. They gain perspectives that others might…but perhaps with a little more intensity…a little more reality.
While there were no casualties that day, there were injuries…some 55 on board were treated and released…mostly suffering from hypothermia. One flight attendant suffered a broken leg. Long after that day, however, some passengers were plagued with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Nightmares were common for many…often for years. One thing is sure, people who survived the near-miss were changed…forever.
Michelle Winegar was a passenger on Flt 1549…only 23 years old at the time.
“I do have some PTSD,” she admitted, “A big trigger for me is the smell of something burning that is out of place. Electrical burning is the worst. I get emotional really fast when that happens.”
She said she’s better at calming herself now, but the experience made a lasting impression.
Indeed, she often refers to herself on social media as “MichelleWinegar24D”…referring to her seat on the flight. She has flown about 30 times since that ominous flight…and air crashes come to mind, even if only briefly.
Mostly, she remembers her thoughts between hearing the crew chant, “Brace, brace, brace. Heads down, Stay down,” and then hitting the water.
“They say when you're about to die your life flashes before your eyes,” she said. “In my case, it was the future I was about to lose, the people I would never see again. I felt every emotion I have ever had in those few seconds.”
Nearly one hundred passengers and crew gathered a year later in New York…celebrating life. And just over two years ago, as the movie “Sully” starring Tom Hanks was being released, 35 of them reunited in Charlotte, NC at the Carolinas Aviation Museum…Flight 1549’s destination was Charlotte-Douglas International Airport. There was a reception at the museum where the actual Airbus A320 is housed…it suffered relatively little damage.
Many passengers and crew stay in touch and have become quite close over the years. There are smaller “reunions” in Charlotte…much like a family gathering. Everyone came away with a slightly different take on the experience…but all are grateful they survived.
And despite the traumatic experience, Ben Bostic, who still lives in Charlotte, said he’s a better person today.
“It was surreal.” said Bostic. “Seeing it on television just a hour later makes you question, did this happen to me or someone else?”
Looking back, Bostic said, the surreal nature of his experience lasted for a while…admitting that it seemed odd that he was back home in Charlotte before midnight…just hours after being scooped from the Hudson. He chartered a single-engine prop plane - ironically a less safe flying option than the US Air Airbus - from Teterboro Airport. Teterboro was just seven miles from where US Air Flt 1549 ditched and was one of the initial landing options given Sullenberger and Skiles by the air traffic controller. Computer models later proved they would never have made it to Teterboro.
Bostic sought professional counselling for PTSD early on, relying on a therapist who had dealt with Hurricane Katrina survivors.
“PTSD is real and you need to deal with it,” explained Bostic. “It’s as if your every experience, your every feeling - your life - were neatly filed in folders in a file cabinet. Then, that entire file drawer is dumped on the floor. You try as best you can to get as many papers back in the right folders and re-file them. It’s not easy.”
The experience - as frightening as it was - is an inextricable part of Bostic today. He doesn’t hide from it…he, too, acknowledges the event’s place in his life with an email address that includes “20A,” his seat assignment on Flt 1549. He still flies...more than ever…and relishes travels to new places and experiencing different cultures around the world.
“Life is good. I celebrate everything today,” Bostic added. “It turns out it was an affirmation of life for me. I’m grateful for every single day. Things are getting back to normal.”
After talking with Ben for nearly an hour last week, I have to agree, he’s as “normal” as you can be…and I have no doubt…he’s a good man that’s now better.
Miracles might happen in an instant…but some span nine years…even more.
– Don Thompson, an American awaiting Canadian citizenship, lives in Vernon and in Florida. In a career that spans more than 40 years, Don has been a working journalist, a speechwriter and the CEO of an advertising and public relations firm. A passionate and compassionate man, he loves the written word as much as fine dinners with great wines. His essays are a blend of news reporting and opinion.
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