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CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Like Captain Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger, First Officer Jeff Skiles says he was too busy to worry as their Airbus A320 headed for the Hudson River, unable to go anywhere else with its engines out.
A 32-year pilot with 21 years at
US Airways(LCC), Skiles, 49, handled the flight's takeoff on Jan. 15. But once the engines failed because of a bird strike, he followed procedure and handed off control to Sullenberger, saying "your aircraft."
His task then was to follow a checklist for dual engine failure. The aircraft, as the entire world knows, made a successful river landing, enabling the crew and all 150 passengers to survive.
"When we first hit the birds, it was like a physical shock," Skiles said Sunday, in an interview with
TheStreet.com, his first after appearing on "60 Minutes" earlier in the evening. "But being trained airline pilots, we started doing what we do, which in my case was running a checklist.
"My reaction was disbelief. I was thinking this can't be happening. But you don't get scared. That's not the way pilots think. You always think there is something you can do.
"I carried out the checklist in the hopes of restarting the engines," Skiles said. "Obviously, that wasn't possible. It was a three-page checklist, and I never got past the first page."
Like Sullenberger, who was talking to air traffic control, Skiles quickly became aware that landing in the Hudson was the best -- perhaps the only -- option. "We discussed briefly going back to LaGuardia, which was on Sully's side of the airplane, but it was too far," he said. "Teterboro was off to the right -- Sully asked the controller about it, and they said it was at 12 o'clock. I looked out there, too. But Sully said 'It's too far away,' and I concurred with that.
"It became clear the river was the only option we had. We felt the river was half a loaf, obviously better than nothing at all. We knew we could do something there. But I wouldn't say we talked a lot. There was no time. Even what I was doing required some input from Sully, and he was overloaded with what he was doing. We were both pretty much task saturated."
The first thing that struck Skiles after the crash was how quickly he found himself getting assistance from his union, the U.S. Airline Pilots Association. Only eight months old, USAPA replaced the long-established Air Line Pilots Association at US Airways following a 2005 merger with America West Airlines. A proposed seniority ruling, backed by ALPA, would have limited career prospects for many veteran US Airways pilots such as Skiles.
"The USAPA response was unbelievable," Skiles said. "There were people there within 20 minutes, and by that night there were 20 union volunteers. They all dropped what they were dong to help us, and some stayed over a week. I cannot imagine going through this experience without USAPA."
One of the most important things union safety officials did, Skiles said, was to describe the impact of post-traumatic stress, which took its toll on every one of the five crew members. A principal symptom is an inability to sleep. "None of us slept the first night," Skiles said. "The second night I got maybe an hour, I kept running it through my mind, even though this was a good outcome. I was doing that for a week and a half afterwards, reliving the whole thing. It was at least two weeks before I could get a good night's sleep."