Flight attendant Sheila Dail holds up some swimming gear at the start of her Oct. 28 talk to the Binghamton University Forum at Traditions at the Glen in Johnson City. "With over 30 years of experience as a flight attendant, I have packing down to a science. ... Since my experience on Flight 1549, I've added a few items to my suitcase," she said, drawing laughter from the audience.
Photo by Jonathan Cohen
‘Brace for impact’: Flight attendant recalls Hudson River crash, rescueTweet
US Airways Flight 1549, en route from New York’s LaGuardia Airport to Charlotte, N.C., was in the air for only two minutes on Jan. 15, 2009, when flight attendant Sheila Dail noticed a loud thump.
“It was something I felt and something I heard,” she said. “I’ve read that the average person has about 60,000 thoughts a day. Let me tell you, I had about 60,000 thoughts in the next few minutes.”
Four minutes later, the Airbus 320 was in the Hudson River and Dail was helping to evacuate 150 passengers to rescue boats outside of the plane. All of the passengers and crew members survived what would soon be called “The Miracle on the Hudson.”
Dail recounted the events of that day to the Binghamton University Forum on Oct. 28, in a luncheon program called “What a Difference a Day Makes.”
The US Airways crew was on the last leg of a four-day trip when its members left LaGuardia. Dail, who lives in Ashville, N.C., was looking forward to returning home after a successful trip that featured visits to Pittsburgh and one of her favorite cities, San Francisco. It was a cold January afternoon in New York City, but there was no snow and Flight 1549 was only 40 minutes behind schedule.
“The boarding went well. We had experienced travelers,” Dail told the Forum audience at Traditions at the Glen in Johnson City. She even recalled that one passenger in the front row was already asleep before takeoff.
But the sudden thump as the plane began climbing shook Dail and the passengers. Dail recalled leaning over to fellow flight attendant Donna Dent and asking what the sound was. Dent’s speculation was right: Flight 1549 had struck a flock of birds.
Dail then noticed a burnt electrical smell: “My heart began to sink,” she said. “I knew something was really wrong.” The flight attendants urged passengers to breathe. Otherwise, the cabin was “library quiet.” Dail thought that the plane was heading back to LaGuardia.
“We were gliding down to what I assumed was a runway,” she said. “It was peaceful and quiet with no sounds from the engines.”
At 3:29 p.m., four minutes after takeoff, the voice of Pilot Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger was heard.
“Over the intercom came the words I never imagined I would hear in real life,” Dail said. “’This is the captain. Brace for impact.’”
Brace for impact? Dail admitted she needed a few seconds of denial before accepting the situation and repeating instructions to the passengers: “Bend over. Heads down. Stay down.”
“At the same time, my mind is racing,” she said. “Am I really doing this? … I guess I’m going to do the job I was hired to do. … I asked God to be with us, but if I had to die would he please make it happen quickly.”
Ninety seconds later, Dail felt the impact and saw passengers rise and come back down to their seats. The plane skidded to the left and stopped. Sullenberg told the flight attendants and passengers to evacuate.
Dail still believed the plane was close to the runway and that they may be able to wade to land. She then told passengers to put on their life vests, leave their belongings behind and head for the just-inflated rescue rafts.
“The evacuation was orderly because we all had a common goal – to survive,” she said.
As the passengers followed her instructions, Dail noticed water coming into the airplane.
“Sully was in the cabin and I asked him if the water was deep. He said, ‘Oh yeah.’
“I exited the plane soon after and could not believe me eyes,” Dail said. “I was in the middle of the Hudson River gazing at the Manhattan skyline. That’s when it hit me: I’m still here. It was a euphoric feeling.”
A ferry boat soon arrived, taking women and children first from the rafts while others waited on the plane’s wing. Dail was one of the last to leave and continued to comfort and help passengers on the ferry boat and on shore.
Dail returned home two days later, but a whirlwind of recognition awaited the US Airways crew members. They attended President Obama’s inauguration and the Super Bowl in Tampa, took bows from the Broadway stage of Cats and were interviewed by Katie Couric and others.
Nine months would go by before Dail returned to work. But in that time, she would find what she calls her “mission” today: creating a peer support group, or critical incident team, for US Airways flight attendants.
The “life-altering experience” has also led the veteran of 8,000 flights to offer advice to passengers. Seventy percent of the passengers on Flight 1549 did not watch the pre-flight safety demonstration and only 8 percent read the safety information card.
“It all comes down to awareness,” she said, adding that passengers should be aware of personal safety equipment; be familiar with seat belts and locate life vests; find the closest exits; and imagine different situations and potential responses.
“Relax, but don’t become complacent,” Dail advised. “Be prepared, be ready to act and use all of the tools at hand that you have. But then we would like you to sit back, relax and enjoy your flight.”