US Airways Flight 1549 on January 15th 2009, became one of the most famous aircraft accidents of all time, when the Airbus 320 miraculously landed on the Hudson River. The aircraft hit a flock of birds on take off, from LaGuardia Airport in New York, causing the loss of both engines. All 150 passengers and five crew members survived. Captain Chelsey Sullenberger and first officer Jeff Stiles were well known for the miracle landing, but what about the flight attendants onboard that day?
The lead flight attendant was Donna Dent working with Sheila Dail at the front of the aircraft, whilst Doreen Welsh was working at the rear of the cabin. These three crew had worked for US Airways for many years totally 95 years of experience between them. Based on experience and their training, it enabled them to safely evacuate the 150 passengers on to the aircraft wings, before being rescued by ferry boats. The aircraft then sank into the Hudson River and was retrieved later for the investigation.
Doreen at the back, remembered the eerie silence when the engines stopped. She had heard a loud noise just after take off and the aircraft jolted. She started to reassure passengers especially as one was a nervous flyer. Donna and Sheila heard a thud and smelt burning and thought that maybe the cargo door had opened in flight. The communication system in the cabin was not working, so the flight attendants could not communicate. The flight attendants all heard the captain’s command to ‘brace for impact’. The training kicked in and all the flight attendants were shouting their commands to prepare the passengers.
“When people are in a car accident, it just happens. No one says in 90 seconds, you’re going to be in a car accident. But we had that, 90 seconds to think about it, before it happens. That’s an awfully long time.”
Doreen Welsh – flight attendant on flight 1549
Sheila described what felt like a hard landing with no landing gear and the aircraft moved towards the left and came to a stop. She heard the captain initiating the evacuation and proceeded to open the exit door and saw that they had landed on water and that the slide was inflating. She was confused as she could not see the airport, where she thought they had landed and could see water entering the cabin.
Some passengers jumped or fell in to water, but they were helping each other and the flight attendants remarked how orderly and controlled it seemed at the time. Some passengers were positioning themselves on the rafts, wings and using seat cushions as flotation devices.
What happened next
Donna also opened her exit door, but it was not locked in to place properly, so an able-bodied passenger helped her to keep the door open to evacuate the passengers. Doreen described a violent landing at the back. She had a severe laceration in her leg where a metal bar had pushed through the cabin floor upwards into the cabin. She could see water outside. A passenger tried to open the rear doors allowing water inside the cabin, she could not close the door.
Doreen shouted to passengers to move to the over wing exits as water was rising rapidly in the rear of the aircraft. Passengers were climbing over seats trying to avoid the water. At this point, Doreen was up to her neck in water but somehow, even with a severe injury made it to the front of the cabin to be evacuated after the passengers. After the passengers had evacuated, the flight attendants left the aircraft and the final sweep of the cabin (to check for remaining passengers) was completed by the captain and first officer.
All crew were given awards for their bravery including the keys of the city of New York. Captain Sully, continued to fly until he retired in 2009. First officer Jeff, went on to work for American Airlines. Sheila returned to flying and retired in 2019, 10 years to the day of the event. Donna continued to fly. Doreen suffered a severe leg injury and scarring, along with PTSD, but went on to work as a public speaker.