On Jan. 15, 2009, US Airways flight 1549 was leaving New York and heading to Charlotte, North Carolina, with 150 passengers and five crew members on board. Just minutes after takeoff, the plane crashed into the chilling waters of the Hudson River. Thanks to the efforts of Capt. Chelsey B. Sullenberger, every person on board survived the event, which came to be known as “The Miracle on the Hudson.”
A little more than 10 years after the anniversary of the crash, the Tullahoma Parks and Recreation Department will be having a Lunch and Learn featuring Vallie Collins, a passenger on Flight 1549. The event will be held on Feb. 20, and Collins will talk about her experience on the flight and the life lessons she learned from the flight she thought would be her last.
“This is an opportunity to hear a firsthand account of a historic airline incident that rewrote the standard flight training manual for all pilots nationwide,” said Tullahoma Parks and Recreation Program Manager Lyle Russell. “Anyone who comes can expect a perspective on an intense situation from a person that had no control over what was happening and the life lessons she learned from it.”
“I am going to talk about my entire experience on the flight,” Collins said. “I will take the audience on the ride with me and through all my range of emotions. I’m going to talk about the five main life lessons that I learned from the experience. The flight taught me many more, but I feel like five really stand out.”
Even though the flight was 10 years ago, Collins, who resides in Maryville, still remembers every detail about that day. Being a frequent business traveler, flying was a normal part of her routine. At the time, she was working as a sales representative in the medical industry.
The airplane had only been in the air for two minutes before it struck a flock of Canada geese. The birds hit both engines of the plane causing them to fail. The airplane was only 2,800 feet in the air. Being nowhere near its cruising altitude or speed, pilots had only a few minutes to navigate the aircraft safely back to earth.
“I was talking with the gentleman next to me, like you sometimes do on a flight,” said Collins. “We were toward the back of the plane behind the engine, and he had a window seat. We heard what sounded like a really loud boom, and the plane dropped a little. The gentleman said that he could see the birds we had just hit. I looked over to my left and I could see smoke coming from the other side of the plane.”
Collins knew something was very wrong. Normally during takeoff, engines are at full thrust to get the aircraft at a cruising speed and altitude. The plane will climb into the sky steadily until it reaches approximately 30,000 feet. Collins couldn’t hear the engines, she noticed that they weren’t ascending and everything seemed quiet. The next few minutes Collins described as “an eternity.”
“About a minute after the bird strike, the captain came over the intercom,” remembered Collins. “He simply told us to brace for impact. That was about 90 seconds before we hit the water. Ninety seconds doesn’t seem like a lot, but in the moment, your mind is mentally preparing you for what is about it happen. I sent a text to my husband and told him that my plane was going to crash.”
Because Collins traveled so often, it was hard for her and her husband to continually update each other with flight information. Collins was concerned that it would take hours for her husband to find out she was on the flight that crashed if this was to be her last few minutes alive.
Collins recalled that the plane was “eerily quiet” after Sullenberger’s announcement. She said the moment was surreal as she began to realize she may be sitting in her last moments of life.
“I didn’t feel panicked; I felt sad,” Collins said. “I was sad about the life I was going to miss out on. I had three children ages 4, 6 and 9 at home. I may not be the best mother, but I was their mother. I was sad about the impact this would have on my children.”
Collins described the impact in the river as extremely rough and compared it to hitting concrete. However, at the same time, she also expecting it to be much worse than it was. Once the airplane was in the water, the captain came from the cockpit and told the passengers to evacuate. That’s when the panic began.
Collins was in the back of the plane, and by the time she was rescued, the near-freezing water was to her shoulders. She was pulled up onto a ferry, drenched from head to toe. She estimates the total rescue time to be about an hour with 15 of those minutes standing on the wing of the plane in freezing temperatures.
During the Lunch and Learn, Collins will inspire audiences with her real-life experience.
“Being an aerospace and flight community, this will likely pique local interest, especially with the commercial airline testing that happens at AEDC,” Russell said. “Many years ago, AEDC used to test plane canopies and engines with the ‘chicken gun’ for bird strikes, which is what caused this accident. With all that said, this is not going to be a technical presentation. This will be about her personal experience as a passenger on flight 1549.”
Lunch will be served at 11:45 a.m., and the program will begin at noon. The program will be held at the D.W. Wilson Center in Tullahoma. It is $8.75 per person to attend. Reservations are preferred to guarantee seats as seating is limited. Walk-ins will be welcome after those with reservations are seated. For more information or to reserve a seat, call 931-455-1121.
Faith Few can be reached by email at email@example.com.