Co-Pilot of US Airways 1549: Cabin Crew Didn’t Know They Landed In Water Until Plane Door Opened

Captain Sully Sullenberger became a household name after US Airways Flight 1549 landed in the Hudson following a double bird strike during the climb out from New York LaGuardia. But did you know that his co-pilot, Jeff Skiles, is still flying for American Airlines?

He was interviewed on a recent American Airlines flight by a member of the cabin crew and shared some tidbits about the minutes after takeoff of that flight and how he and Sullenberger worked with flight attendants to prepare the cabin for impact back in January 2009.

The most striking thing to me is that the whole thing unfolded so quickly, they communicated what they could, but they were so focused on getting the aircraft down as safely as possible that flight attendants didn’t know the plane landed on the Hudson – rather than on ground – until they opened the door and saw water.

Click through each question and First Officer Skiles’ answers – and ponder for a moment that a decade after successfully putting an Airbus A320 down in the river, Skiles still wears just three stripes.

View this post on Instagram

I had the honor and pleasure of flying recently with Jeff Skiles, Co-pilot of U.S. Airways flight 1549, “The Miracle on the Hudson”, along with Captain Hewitt. @kenhewitta320 👨🏼‍✈️ He was happy to answer a few questions i had and let me video his answers to share! What an amazing man he is, and I can see why he is a successful motivational speaker. .(be sure to scroll through all seven frames to hear what he has to say) Skiles believes that life changes all around you, and if you can’t adapt and change with it, you can’t succeed. He attributes the success of the emergency landing on the Hudson to the extensive training that all members of a flight crew experience. From the mechanics and the maintenance workers to the people who write the emergency protocols and the flight attendants, he believes that we collectively as a group are responsible for the outcome on January 15, 2009. While he and captain Sullenberger piloted the plane to a safe landing, he attributes the success to the contributions of an entire organization. #miracleonthehudson #usairways #jeffskiles #motivationalspeaker #motivational #hudsonriver #americanair

A post shared by AASTEWS Living Life In The Sky (@aastews) on

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

More articles by Gary Leff »


  1. The “thought leader in travel” sure doesn’t know much about how airline scheduling works and why someone would choose to remain a FO versus moving to the left seat.

  2. I’m sure his seniority is better as an FO on 787 (which he’s pictured on) then it would be as a captain on a smaller aircraft. Obviously a choice that works better for him.

  3. @Amar yes he gets a much better schedule as a senior FO than he would as a junior captain, but this is precisely my point, to ponder the system of how union rank and scheduling works that leads to the co-pilot who put US1549 down safely in the Hudson not having four stripes (indeed, on his choice of aircraft for which he’s qualified, a decade after the incident).

    Some folks can’t do more than explain how the current system works, unable to imagine it working any other way or wondering why that might be desirable.

  4. “Ponder for a moment that a decade after successfully putting an Airbus A320 down in the river, Skiles still wears just three stripes”

    What??!! How’s that even possible!!

  5. If you pull up you tube’s where Mr. Skiles tells his story. He talks about how he was a 737 captain (4 stripes) before and he had very recently switched to the Airbus as a FO because he has business interests outside of flying he wanted to focus on and as a senior FO he could get a great schedule. My guess is that is still the story today, making more money outside flying. Nothing wrong with that.

  6. “Will says”

    Yes but – Gary makes a profound point. Arguably this person is in the 99.99999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999th% percentile of his profession – with epic lessons to share. Yet the the industry and RULES are structured in such a way where external opportunities are more enticing to him, as opposed to celebrating the best in the the profession – and the corporation is fine with it.

    As a young person I was pro-free market/anti union – because of a belief in a meritocracy. Always salaried and executive track so to speak with companies you would know. Now at 50+ , from an industry that now kills the elders before they become too much of a drag, I almost wish I was a union guy, grinding out a gig – my family would be better off.

    Having said all that, its probably the union rules that handcuff the airline and Mr. Skiles in this sitch, and again Gary wisely points out a fascinating anomaly.

  7. @Gary Leff

    “union rank and scheduling”

    Not so much… it’s a seniority based system, not “union rank.” This is standard throughout the industry, across non union carriers (when they exist) and other unionized carriers, regardless of union affiliation.

    Second, management agreed to it too. So it’s a little rich to blame stuff on “the unions” that management has also agreed to. A contract is a contract, and management holds a lot of cards. And make no mistake: Management benefits from the seniority system too, especially at the regional level.

    Third, let’s get real for a minute. It’s fine to talk about the significance of what Sully and Skiles pulled off, but it’s not fine to say “clearly they’re better than everybody else” or some insinuation that other pilots are less skilled. One simply cannot make broad statements about the piloting skills of others, because few pilots will ever experience a dual engine failure shortly after takeoff from an NYC airport. We can test people in the sims all we want, but sims are never a perfect replication of real world conditions for a number of reasons, human factors and expectation bias being BIG ones.

  8. @ Gary –

    What you are missing – or willfully ignoring – is the Mr. Skiles seems to have chosen to remain a FO. That’s not about the “system” per se – it’s about his own priorities and choices.

    But go on….continue to advance your agenda.

  9. @bob – not missing it at all, pointing out that the system forces him into that choice when it shouldn’t. i explained that above, are you spouting off without fully reading?

  10. @dan – standard in the industry, but a practice worth questioning. incidentally such systems were encouraged by united airlines, whose long-time persident pat patterson simply believed unions were closer to the needs of workers

  11. “Still wears just three stripes” is misleading without including the aircraft type he is now flying. It’s doubtful he is still FO on Airbus 320. As pilots progress up equipment types (and pay) they usually step from right seat to left seat, etc. This is one example I guess, where a few months ago a blog post made the point that bloggers are not always experts in the subject matter. Granted, the intent of the simple “three stripes” comment was expanded in the comments but that was after being challenged on the point.

  12. @Gary, apparently he has made significant progress moving up in the years since the landing on the Hudson. It’s a valid point, negating the implication that “still has three stripes” is an unfortunate thing.

  13. @gary

    It’s so entrenched that it’s going to take an act of congress (hah) to change it. And since the senior guys at the top like the system, good luck with that. So I guess you can “question” it from the outside, but those in it accept it as the lesser of many evils.

    What I was really getting at was that your comment came off as a union dig, and that’s way oversimplifying the system, as it’s far more nuanced than that. While I am unaware of the exact origins of these things, by your own admission, “united airlines” encouraged such systems.

    Management likes these systems because it makes growing the airline/adding new flying cheap. *All* new hires are added to the airline at first year FO rates. The downside is that if an airline isn’t growing, they’ve locked in cost increases.

    Again, my issue here is to your “union rank” reference. Management gets some blame here too.

  14. My husband remained a first officer for years longer than he needed to because it afforded him the scheduling seniority that allowed us to work with my travel schedule. He could just about guarantee he would have the days off he asked for. As a captain now, due to seniority, he never gets the days off we need. Sometimes, there are other priorities besides the number of stripes.

  15. He’s FO by choice. He was actually a captain in the years before the Hudson incident. In fact, he actually had more flight hours than Sully did at the time. He’s stated in interviews that he prefers to be FO since it gives him more scheduling flexibility that allows him to attend to his other job(s). At the time he owned a construction company.

  16. So, let’s say an airline decides to ditch the seniority system for pilots. What does it get replaced with? Ranking pilots based on skills is a bad idea. How do you objectively measure that? Do you want to be on the plane being flown by the pilot who scored the lowest?

    The system is imperfect, but I think it is least imperfect option out there.

    Now, for FAs, I see it differently, but that’s a different thread.

  17. The good news about a seniority based system is that you can choose a better lifestyle schedule over the traditional rise in responsibilities. Such choices were not available to me in the electronics industry.

  18. Here’s an example of someone (me) choosing to wear three stripes rather than four. Having been a Captain with 4-stripes (on USAirways A320) for several years, I opted to wear three-stripes as a First Officer on the A330 doing international flights and being at the very top of the First Offcier roster. Not only did this move give me the top choices of schedule, it was actually a bit of a PAY RAISE to be flying the “big airplane” as an F/O rather than a Captain on the “little Bus.”

    But 9/11 happened in that time frame and the contract was renegotiated where I was making considerably less as a 3-striper, so I went back to the Captain seat of the “little Bus.” It was all a matter of convenience and pay negotiated by the union.

    And I did have the pleasure of flying the with F/O Jeff Skiles on a few occasions! He’s a great pilot and true gentleman. I am glad to hear he is still flying at American. Me? Retired 3 1/2 years ago as a 4-striper on the A330.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *