Updated from 12:05 a.m. EST
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
, 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
, 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."
A resident of Madison, Wis., Skiles will seek to return to a normal life after several more TV appearances, ceremonies and interviews. He intends to continue working at US Airways, and like nearly all first officers, his goal is to someday make captain. "I have been a co-pilot now for 22 years," he said. "The last thing I want is to be a co-pilot for another 16." His chance is at least five years off, he said.
Meanwhile, the three Flight 1549 flight attendants expressed pride in their vocations and said they plan to return to work, but were hesitant to set a timetable, as they spoke at a press conference Monday morning after being honored at New York City Hall by Mayor Michael Bloomberg.
"I am a flight attendant: I will be back at work," said Donna Dent, a 26-year veteran.
Twenty-eight-year veteran Shelia Dail said: "I will come back when I feel like am ready," and noted that "the training I've been through was invaluable" as she helped to evacuate the plane.
Working in the back of the airplane, Doreen Welsh had it tougher than her peers. Her tasks included trying unsuccessfully to close the exit door after a passenger had opened it, allowing water to enter the aircraft, and then getting passengers out as water gushed in.
Welsh, who has said she initially feared for her life, was injured in the process, sustaining a gash in her leg. "I've been flying 38 years," she said. "I've been doing this since was 19. I am taking it day by day."
The history of US Airways, an amalgamation of smaller airlines, is written in the career paths of the veteran crew: Welsh joined predecessor Allegheny Airlines in 1970; Sullenberger joined PSA in 1980; Dail and Dent joined Piedmont Airlines in the 1980s; and Skiles joined USAir in 1982.
Skiles said the crash produced a number of heroes. "A lot of people don't really understand there is a whole crew involved in this -- two pilots, three flight attendants, the passengers themselves, and of course, those guys in the boats were the ones who got us out. A lot of people deserve credit for the successful outcome that occurred."
USAPA spokesman Arnie Gentile said the crash made clear the high standards of the veteran pilots and flight attendants who staff the airline industry. Those standards have prevailed despite industrywide cost-cutting over the past eight years. "For the whole country, it's been economic hard times for several months, but airline employees have been under pressure since Sept. 11 (2001)," Gentile said. "Nevertheless, these crews have stuck to being professionals."