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Passenger on Flight 1549 no longer takes life for granted

By Roger Greene
Coastal Observer

The 24-hour news cycle has conditioned us to expect the negative. Death, illness, violence, injuries and tales of financial pain are constantly hurled at us, and each passing day brings little relief.

Upon this smorgasbord of misery and woe, there is little room for hope and faith. The good things in life can be easy to forget, and at times it’s difficult to stir positive recollections.

Forgive Billy Campbell, an entertainment executive, for putting a different spin on that. A survivor of the US Airways Flight 1549, which famously ditched in the Hudson River in New York City, Campbell understands that each day is a gift. He’s aware that he, along with the others on the flight, are living miracles.

“I think it’s natural for those who haven’t experienced a [life-altering] situation to take things for granted,” Campbell said. “Going through something like we did on that plane changes your perspective. Life can change in an instant. Don’t wait for something to happen. Try to enjoy every moment.”

Campbell shared his story of survival with the congregation at All Saints Church on Sunday. Campbell received a standing ovation following his address and his words had a measurable effect on his audience.

“He was very inspiring,” said Eleanor Pitts. “He has great faith and that is something we all need in these times. What stood out to me was when he asked that if we died today, would there be enough evidence to convict us of being Christian. That was a great message.”

Added Chick Byrd, “We’re all going to reach the point where our life will flash before our eyes. Toward the end [of his address], Billy talked about the need to make our lives something that will be worth looking at. That struck me and I thought it was a great way to wrap things up.”

Campbell, 50, is a native of Greenville and owns a home in Litchfield. All Saints, as well as other churches, schools and organizations have invited Campbell to discuss his experiences and he plans on continuing his public speaking role.

“It’s a story that touches so many,” Campbell said. “I’m always happy to talk about it.”

With business dealings on both coasts, travel has long been a job requirement for Campbell and flying has become routine.

Boarding Flight 1549 on the afternoon of Jan. 15, 2009, Campbell was familiar with the flight path, leaving LaGuardia Airport in New York and touching down at Charlotte/Douglas International Airport. From Charlotte, he would catch a connecting flight to Myrtle Beach.

Campbell was one of the last to board the aircraft that day. He took his window seat, toward the back and on the left side of the Airbus A320, and awaited departure.

According to reports, the amount of aircraft bird strikes have quadrupled in the U.S. since 1990. But the passengers and crew of Flight 1549 had no way of knowing they were about to join those numbers after takeoff.

Just minutes after departure, at close to 3,200 feet and positioned over the Bronx, the aircraft struck a pack of Canada geese.

Both engines ingested the birds, and from the cockpit, the pilot, Capt. Chesley B. “Sully” Sullenberger, radioed the plane had “lost thrust in both engines.” In later testimony, several passengers and crew members recalled hearing loud bangs from the engines, seeing flames, and smelling unburned fuel.

From his seat, Campbell had a direct view of the engine on his side of the plane.

“It was a bonfire of flames,” Campbell said. “But, at that point, I still didn’t realize how big of a problem we had. I thought, if anything, we would just turn around and go back to LaGuardia.”

Sullenberger quickly ruled out a return to LaGuardia and also dismissed a emergency landing at Teterboro airport in New Jersey. With his only option being the river, Sullenberger guided the aircraft over the George Washington Bridge and ditched it in a part of the Hudson adjacent to Manhattan. The ordeal had lasted roughly six minutes.

“When I saw we were going down the river, I knew we were in trouble,” Campbell said. “Then, I heard the pilot say to brace for impact … [Sullenberger] made all the right calls, and he made a wonderful landing in the water.”

During testimony about the incident in Washington, D.C., Campbell described his view of the landing.

“When we did hit, I almost felt like I was on the cruise ship,” he said. “Because as I looked out the window, the plane submerged, and it felt like almost looking out a porthole because we were underwater. We then sort of bounced, came up, skidded, and it all happened obviously very quickly.”

Despite splashing down in the river, the plane remained virtually intact. Yet it still began to take on water, leaving passengers with little time to think of anything other than exiting.

“It went through your mind that ‘Wow, we made it’, but the water was rising quickly,” Campbell said. “Your entire focus was on getting out of the plane. There was some panic, we thought we were going to sink.”

Campbell and the other passengers were able to exit, most using the wings and inflatable slide as flotillas. The cool January air and icy Hudson waters offered little relief. The plane, drifting aimlessly on the current, was slowly submerging.

But within minutes both commercial and emergency rescue vessels would reach the aircraft and begin the evacuation process. The majority of the passengers were treated for mild injuries and hypothermia.

Sullenberger’s landing was dubbed the “Miracle on the Hudson,” and the pilot would go on to gain a host of awards and a legion of admirers.

“Sullenberger is a hero,” said Dave Cooper, an airline pilot from Raleigh who was visiting All Saints on Sunday.

“He didn’t panic and he took control, exactly what you are supposed to do in that situation. The river was relatively calm and he brought that plane down on glass. My hat is off to him.”

Campbell was one of the last passengers to depart the plane and personally thanked Sullenberger before exiting.

“Being able to land the plane the way he did was remarkable,” Campbell said. “It was truly a miracle.”

Undeterred by his experiences on Flight 1549, Campbell was back in the air the next day, ironically flying the same route.

“It was the same route, same connection, same everything,” Campbell said. “I have no problem with flying. My view has always been that it is the safest means of transportation we have.”

“But,” he added, “I do appreciate a calm, routine flight much more than I used to.”

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