alumniACHIEVEMENTSFlight 1549

Photo by Richard J. McCormack

THE PLANE TRUTH

A WCU alumna shares her first-hand account of ‘The Miracle on the Hudson’

By SARAH KUCHARSKI

Passengers on US Airways Flight 1549 were chatting casually as the plane climbed on departure from New York City’s LaGuardia Airport bound for Charlotte on Thursday, Jan. 15, when, a minute and 2,800 feet into the air, something went wrong. “You felt the whole plane shake and heard a bang. It was pretty loud,” said passenger Bill Elkin. “Nobody knew at that point what had happened.”

Sheila Dail

No one in the cabin heard Capt. Chesley B. Sullenberger’s dispatch from the cockpit as the Airbus 320’s engines went silent. “Ah, this is, uh, Cactus 39. Hit birds. We lost thrust in both engines. We’re turning back towards LaGuardia,” Sullenberger radioed in.

On board was flight attendant Sheila Dail ’73, an Asheville native. Dail’s degree in early childhood education had landed her a teaching job in the Virgin Islands soon after graduation, which got her interested in travel. “It sounded like something that would be a good way to see different parts of the country and the world while not having the money,” Dail said.

She joined on with Northwest Airlines and was based out of Minneapolis. Wanting to return to North Carolina, she accepted a job with Piedmont based out of Wilmington and then joined US Airways in 1980, later moving to the Charlotte hub. Today she lives in Weaverville with her husband, Bill.

That day in January, Dail had been in service for four days and was looking forward to going home that evening after the plane touched down in Charlotte. When she heard a loud thump, her 29 years of experience told her that something had happened with Flight 1549, but initially she thought it was a routine mechanical problem. From where she was seated near the front of the plane, Dail expected nothing more than for the plane to head back to the tarmac.

A female passenger sitting next to Elkin looked out her window and cursed. “She said, ‘The engine just exploded, and there’s flames and smoke shooting out of it,’” Elkin said. Soon came the creeping realization that the plane was totally quiet. “The only noise that I heard was a child behind me crying a bit,” he said.

Sullenberger’s voice came over the plane’s loudspeaker: “Brace for impact.”

Dail and her fellow flight attendants immediately began yelling instructions to the plane’s 150 passengers. “We just kicked in to what we were trained to do,” Dail said.

“They just kept repeating it almost like a chant,” Elkin said.

Within seconds the plane slammed into the frigid Hudson River. “The next thing I remember is a hard hit and seeing water shooting past the windows,” Elkin said.

“I just thought, well that was a pretty hard landing,” Dail said. “I thought he must not have put the landing gear down.” None of the attendants knew that the plane had ditched in the river until they opened the emergency exits and water began filling the aisles. Dail and the other flight attendants called out for passengers to don their life vests as the plane’s life rafts automatically deployed. The water inside the plane quickly rose to knee level.

Passengers began making their way toward the front of the plane as the rear of the craft sank underwater. Dail helped passengers exit the plane. Her door refused to fully open, she thinks due to wind, forcing a passenger to help hold it open. Passengers crowded into the plane’s life rafts and stood on the wings of the plane clutching seat cushions to use as flotation devices and wearing bright yellow life vests. “When I realized that everyone was off the plane, I got off,” Dail said.

All 150 passengers aboard survived. The five-member crew had pulled off a heroic landing and escape. And Dail hopes that the successful splash landing teaches all airline passengers a lesson – safety saves.

“Passengers should pay attention to the safety information on each plane they board,” she said. “Every airplane is different. In the short time they’re doing the video, pay attention, give that your focus, and pull out the safety card and read it.”

The role of a flight attendant isn’t just to serve complimentary peanuts and soft drinks and help stow luggage. They are trained to be the plane’s first responders in emergency situations, and Dail is perfect for the job, friends say.

“Sheila’s presence just has a really calming influence,” said Josie Bewsey, a study abroad program student adviser at WCU and Dail’s friend of six years. “She’s a very strong woman.”

The crew of US Airways Flight 1549 made safety procedures part of their message as their heroism resulted in several public appearances in the weeks following the incident. Dail and her fellow crew members spent the first two days in debriefings with the National Transportation Safety Board. On Jan. 20, they were among those seated at President Barack Obama’s inauguration. The television interviews spanned from “Larry King Live” to CBS’s “Late Show with David Letterman” and “60 Minutes” to ABC’s “Good Morning America.” The House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee took its testimony at a hearing on Capitol Hill. The crew was honored at award ceremonies with the mayors of New York and Charlotte and as guests of honor at Super Bowl XLIII, which Dail called “just the experience of a lifetime.”

Dail, set to resume work in September, will take to the air with a new sense of purpose. “I’m sure it’s going to change the way I think about things,” she said. “I’ll probably be more likely to say something when passengers are not following safety rules, such as not buckling up or walking through the cabin right before take off.” Dail also is developing a proposal for a critical incident response training program for flight attendants.