That’s how Wally Coppinger somewhat facetiously referred to the US Airways plane that was before us during my recent private tour of the Carolinas Aviation Museum in Charlotte, where he’s executive director.
Carrying 150 passengers and five crew members on January 15, 2009, the ill-fated plane, Flight 1549, took off from LaGuardia Airport in New York City en route to Charlotte. After just a few minutes in the air, the Airbus A320 struck a flock of Canadian geese. Two of the birds went into each of the two engines, causing them to shut down immediately.
Captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger and First Officer Jeff Skiles, with infinite skill, rapid and sound decision making, blessed luck, and a plane embodying modern aviation’s technology and safety features, successfully guided the plane to an emergency landing in the Hudson River. Rescue followed close behind. Miraculously, everyone survived, and 155 lives changed forever. The incident with the improbable outcome, immortalized in photos of passengers standing on the wings and in rafts awaiting rescue, still resonates five years later.
That the plane and the flight crew were based in Charlotte, 80 passengers were from Charlotte, and the plane was bound for Charlotte lends a certain poignancy to its presence. Many museums vied for the plane when Chartis Insurance Company decided to donate it in 2011, but the plane’s multi-layered connection to Charlotte was a determining consideration for Chartis, along with the fact that Carolinas Aviation Museum was the only one that would display the aircraft indoors and intact.
“Everyone stops dead when they see it,” Coppinger said in response to my own reaction. “People ask if it’s the actual aircraft. It’s unbelievable and amazing that it is, that it’s not at the bottom of the Hudson River, and that it’s in pretty good shape.”
Flight 1549 has a hugely compelling story, which makes it even more fitting that the Miracle on the Hudson’s final home is Carolinas Aviation Museum because the museum creates a storytelling approach for all its exhibits. Coppinger said that feature sets it apart from other aviation museums. Information panels beside the planes (Coppinger says they’re more appropriately called artifacts because they no longer fly) share such details as their flight history, passengers, how they flew and where and why, how they landed, and how they came to be on display at the museum.
“Stories draw people, let them connect on a personal level with the planes, and excite them more than just hearing ‘this is a piece of aluminum that goes through the air,’ ” Coppinger said.
The museum further shares Miracle on the Hudson’s story through a presentation case containing items that were on board that day – a fur coat, cell phones, newspapers, pillows, wine bottles, and briefcases. The company that dry-cleaned the sodden clothing shipped the items in corrugated boxes to the individual owners. One passenger decided not to open her box, and gave it to the museum with the stipulation that it never be opened. Sullenberger and Skiles donated their uniforms. The captain’s logbook and seat cushions thrown to passengers to help them float are there. Coppinger noted that a life-size model of a Canadian goose is included to illustrate “that size bird brought down this size bird.”
Coppinger knows first-hand the emotional stories of many of the 155 passengers and crew. When the plane hit, the initial impact broke off the back part of the plane, and passengers seated in the rear feared they would drown as the river flooded in. Some didn’t know the plane was headed for the water. A passenger in a window seat focused straight ahead, not wanting to see how she was going to die. One man, while standing on a wing, called a US Airways reservation agent on his cell phone to book another flight home that evening.
Coppinger related that Sullenberger told him he wants the museum’s 60,000 annual visitors to know of the tremendous amount of humanity, of people helping each other and touching lives.
Among them are replicas of the Wright Brothers’ Flyer, especially appropriate considering their first flight occurred in North Carolina, and the plane an early heir to the Reynolds Tobacco fortune flew in 1930 at age 19 from London to China.
Macy’s sold the Ercoupe in its department stores in the 1940s. The Piedmont DC-3, a plane that revolutionized the transportation industry, speaks to the founding of that airline in nearby Winston-Salem. The dual cockpit of the yellow PT-17 Stearman made it ideal for training pilots. The F14 Tomcat “Top Gun” jet was used in Vietnam. Their version of the Harrier jet was a test plane. A brave and heroic solider aboard the CH-46 Sea Knight helicopter received the Congressional Medal of Honor for rescuing multiple comrades from a minefield.
Now, if only the planes themselves could talk.
This is the first of a two-part series about the Miracle on the Hudson and the Carolinas Aviation Museum. Part two is an interview with Beth McHugh, one of the survivors of the flight.