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Miracle on the Hudson: The Audio Tapes

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Captain Chesley B. Sullenberger IIINewly released audio tapes of the conversation between the pilot of US Airways flight 1549 and air traffic controllers in the moments before the plane went down in the Hudson River last month reveal a captain who remained surprisingly calm in the face of a potentially horrific disaster.

In the recordings, which the FAA released Thursday, Captain Chesley B. Sullenberger III can be heard briskly assessing and dismissing a variety of landing options presented by air traffic controllers at New York’s LaGuardia airport after he hit a flock of birds, causing both engines on his jet to lose power.

When air traffic controllers asked if he wanted to turn around and head back to LaGuardia, Sullenberger can be heard simply saying “unable.”

A few seconds later, when they suggested he attempt a landing at New Jersey’s nearby Teterboro airport, he calmly replied “We can’t do it. We’re gonna be in the Hudson.”

He eventually decided to ditch the plane in the river between Manhattan and New Jersey. All 155 passengers and crew survived the near-perfect water landing, and the plane remained intact.

During the harrowing two minute long conversation between Sullenberger and the air traffic controllers, the pilot never even mentioned the words “emergency” and his clipped, professional demeanor belied the fact that he was terrified inside.

“It was the worst sickening, pit-of-your-stomach, falling-through-the-floor feeling I’ve ever felt in my life,” he said. “I knew immediately it was very bad.”

Read the official transcript released by the FAA here.

However, Sullenberger’s years of experience, including several as an Air Force fighter pilot, enabled him to resist the urge to panic and allowed him to fulfill the pilot’s motto of “aviate, navigate, communicate.” The only clue that he was under stress was revealed when he incorrectly identified his plane as “Cactus 1539” instead of 1549.

Sullenberger and other crew members are speaking publicly about their ordeal for the first time since it happened on January 15. The group talked to CBS news anchor Katie Couric in an interview that will be aired on Sunday evening’s episode of 60 Minutes.

Related links: San Jose Mercury-News, CBS News, New York Times, Newsday

By Karen Elowitt for PeterGreenberg.com.

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