Features  / 05.11 /

‘Miracle’ Student

Two years after landing in the Hudson, Clay Presley is PIC

On a freezing day in January 2009, Clay Presley found himself in a very improbable place—standing on the wing of an Airbus A320 that had just landed in New York’s Hudson River.

Huddled with the other 154 passengers and crew, waiting for a tour boat to take him to dry land, Clay Presley could have vowed never to set foot on an airplane again.

Instead, just two years and 10 days after he was part of the emergency landing that riveted the nation, Presley soloed a Cessna 172 at Rock Hill Airport in Rock Hill, South Carolina.

“He was a little surprised” when the big day arrived and his CFI climbed out the cockpit, said Troy Fleming, who instructs for FlyCarolina and signed Presley’s logbook authorizing his solo on the morning of January 25, 2011. “He was relieved and excited to do it on his own. He did a really good job,” Fleming said.

Presley said he knew he must have been ready when Fleming asked him how he felt about flying by himself. “That first landing was the best I’ve done in 80 landings,” he said.

From then to now. What inspired Presley to learn to pilot a small aircraft—especially in light of what he had experienced? He believes it’s a combination of factors.

Presley had been mulling the idea of learning to fly long before he boarded the US Airways flight. His son Brad is a private pilot. “Brad got his pilot’s license while in medical school at the University of Kentucky in the summer of 2006,” Presley said.

Presley had flown with Brad on a few occasions, and thought that learning to fly would be a fun activity that he could share with his son. But he hadn’t taken any steps toward scheduling a lesson. As the president of Carolina Pad, a company that designs and sells school, office, and arts and crafts products, Presley travels quite a bit. He was returning home from a business trip on the morning of January 15, 2009.

Splashdown. US Airways Flight 1549, piloted by Capt. Chesley B. “Sully” Sullenberger and First Officer Jeffrey Skiles, landed in the Hudson River in New York after striking a flock of Canada geese. Both its engines failed on climbout from LaGuardia Airport in New York City en route to Charlotte, North Carolina. The captain decided they didn’t have enough altitude to turn back or make an emergency landing at Teterboro, New Jersey. Sullenberger’s words to New York Tracon, “We’re gonna be in the Hudson,” was the last transmission from the airplane before it touched down in the river.

“We were all scared to death,” Presley said. “It was a traumatic experience for all of us.”

The Airbus remained afloat, and all of the passengers and crew were safely evacuated. In the days that followed, the event was dubbed “Miracle on the Hudson.” Sullenberger, Skiles, and the crew were hailed for their courageous actions and the fact that there were no casualties.

The first time Presley saw Sullenberger after the incident, the captain asked him, “What was it like in the back?”

“I kind of made a sarcastic answer,” Presley said. “What he was really asking was how was it not knowing what was really going on…I started thinking about that day. The only thing I was in control of was myself, and I didn’t understand what was going on.”

He realized that if he learned to fly, he could begin to understand what had happened on Flight 1549 and also be more cognizant of what’s going on during routine airline flight operations.

154 new friends. The passengers and crew of Flight 1549 have remained in contact. “I’ve made 154 friends,” Presley said. “We all have a bond because we shared an experience most people never get to share, and a lot of people would never understand unless they go through something like that.”

During a visit to Wisconsin in September 2010 to do an interview about Flight 1549 for a television documentary, Skiles offered to take him flying “in a proper airplane.” The first officer, who is on leave from US Airways, owns a 1935 cabin Waco.

“He really enjoyed himself,” Skiles says.

Presley enjoyed not only the flight but also the introduction that Skiles provided to the general aviation community. “I said, all right, I’m going to do this. I’m gonna do it.”

He has Sullenberger (now retired from US Airways) and Skiles in his cell phone, and he sends them updates on his training.

“The whole idea of learning the technical aspects of flying has been very interesting to me—certainly in the last two years, maybe in the last seven or eight years,” Presley said. “The conversations I’ve had with Sully and Jeff have really encouraged me.”

Of his airline friends, Presley said, “They’re such great guys, they have such great character. It tells me a lot about pilots in general.”

Skiles got a phone call from Presley on solo day. “He’s the only one” among the passengers who has gone on to learn to fly, Skiles said. “I understand a lot of them haven’t flown [since].”

Learning to fly is “probably one of the most gratifying things you can do,” Skiles said. “It’s not just a hobby. It becomes for most people a lifetime activity that they consider to be part of their identity.”

Presley’s enthusiasm about his flying lessons may in turn have reignited a spark with Skiles. He recently took up an airline pilot friend who hadn’t flown small airplanes in 20 years. “I took him for a couple of rides in my airplane and he went and bought a Cessna 172 and [reinstated] his flight instructor certificate last fall. I was thinking of doing the same thing,” Skiles says.

Back on the ground. The day after he soloed, Presley climbed aboard yet another commercial jet for yet another business trip—this time to Germany, where he was to attend an international trade show. The excitement remained, however, and he was thinking about the next phase of his training. “I’m looking forward to having the opportunity to fly a little bit alone, just for the challenge.”

He’d like to own an airplane, possibly through a partnership or club. He has four children, the eldest 30 and the youngest 21. “They’re spread out a little bit. My wife and I could travel to see them,” he says.

But that’s in the future. There are solo cross-countries and a checkride to accomplish first. Not to mention engine-out maneuvers. After what he’s experienced, Presley is fairly sanguine about landing on a runway with the power brought back to idle.

He even has a sense of humor about it, according to his flight instructor. Once, while flying over one of North Carolina’s many manmade lakes at about 500 feet agl, Presley joked that they should practice a simulated water landing. As the saying goes, “Been there, done that, got the T-shirt.”

Associate Editor Jill W. Tallman is an instrument-rated private pilot with about 600 hours.

How to steer clear of birds

Incredible as it may seem that a flock of Canada geese could bring down an Airbus, that’s exactly what happened when several of the birds were sucked into the jet’s engines, causing them both to lose thrust.

If you happen to hit a bird—even a smaller one—you may have an emergency situation on your hands, just as Sullenberger and Skiles did. Birds can blast through windshields or damage flight-control surfaces. You could be faced with having to land as soon as possible while dealing with wind and noise in the cockpit or an uncooperative aileron.

Aside from dealing with an immediate emergency, avoiding birds should be your focus when you fly. Know where they tend to move near or around airports, and read up on their migration patterns so that you’ll understand when bird movement is at its peak. See the AOPA Air Safety Institute’s Safety Spotlight on bird strikes (www.aopa.org/asf/hotspot/birdstrike.html) and listen to a pilot recount his story of a hawk encounter in Arizona (http://flash.aopa.org/asf/pilotstories/birdstrike/).

Where are they now?

Capt. Chesley B. Sullenberger retired from US Airways and has been on the lecture circuit, advocating for aviation safety, and is co-chairman of the EAA’s Young Eagles program. His memoir, Highest Duty, was published in 2009.

First Officer Jeffrey B. Skiles is on leave from US Airways. He and Sullenberger have appeared before Congress to speak on aviation safety and pilot pay cuts. He recently joined protestors in Madison, Wisconsin, who were rallying against Gov. Scott Walker’s plan to reduce the state’s budget deficit by eliminating collective bargaining rights for many state workers.

Flight attendants Sheila Dail, Donna Dent, and Doreen Welsh have retired from or left the airline.

The passengers of Flight 1549 were each given $5,000 to compensate for their lost belongings, a refund of their airfare, and a free year’s membership in the airline’s club program. They also collaborated on a book, Miracle on the Hudson.

The Airbus A320 was recovered from the Hudson River. It will be placed on display at the Carolinas Aviation Museum at Charlotte-Douglas International Airport in Charlotte, North Carolina, this year.