NEW YORK – The pilot who ditched his jetliner in the Hudson River and saved the lives of everyone on board said he had a "sickening" feeling when a flock of birds disabled both engines with violent thuds, crippling the plane at 3,000 feet over the nation's most populous city.
Capt. Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger said in an interview with CBS' "60 Minutes" that the sound of the geese hitting the plane and the smell of burning poultry entering the cabin was "shocking."
"Oh, you could hear them," he said. "Loud thumps. It felt like the airplane being pelted by heavy rain or hail. It sounded like the worst thunderstorm I'd ever heard growing up in Texas."
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Sullenberger took control of the plane from his first officer and glided it to safety, but said that in the aftermath of the emergency landing, he lay awake at night second-guessing his performance, even though all 155 people aboard survived.
He said he initially had trouble forgiving himself because he thought he could have done something different in that "critical situation."
"The first few nights were the worst," Sullenberger said. "When the `what ifs' started."
He said he no longer regrets his actions that day, calling his decision to land in the river "the only viable alternative" to attempting a return to LaGuardia Airport or landing at Teterboro Airport in New Jersey.
"The only level, smooth place sufficiently large to land an airliner was the river," he said, recalling that the plane had no thrust and was "descending rapidly."
Sullenberger, a former Air Force fighter pilot who has flown commercial planes for nearly three decades, said he knew he had to touch down with the wings level and the nose slightly up, and "at a descent rate that was survivable."
"Did you, at any point, pray?" CBS' Katie Couric asked.
The flight attendants said they didn't know they were landing in the water until it happened.
"When I got out of my seat and saw that water, it was the most shocked I've ever been in my life," flight attendant Doreen Welsh said, adding that her emotions "had gone through, within seconds, accepting death and seeing life."
She said she then "went crazy" and started yelling and pushing people to get them out because the impact tore a hole in the plane's tail and water poured into the cabin.
"And as I was getting up, I thought I might actually live," Welsh said. "`Cause a second ago, I thought I was gone."
Sullenberger landed the plane near two ferry terminals, and rescue boats appeared within minutes to take the 150 passengers and five crew members to safety.
When the pilot got official confirmation that everyone had survived, "I felt like the weight of the universe had been lifted off my heart," he said.
The crew met some of the passengers and their relatives at a reunion in Charlotte, N.C., the destination of Flight 1549.
"More than one woman came up to me and said, `Thank you for not making me a widow,"' Sullenberger said. "'Thank you for allowing my 3-year-old son to have a father."'
One passenger asked Sullenberger to sign his shirt.
"Where, right there?" Sullenberger replied. "You got it. Let me make it big and bold."
The flight crew was expected to receive the keys to the city on Monday from Mayor Michael Bloomberg.