Hero pilot and crew get keys to NYC

February 9, 2009 9:53:12 PM PST
The US Airways pilot and crew who safely landed a crippled airliner in the icy Hudson River were honored with keys to the city from a grateful Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who said they turned a potential tragedy into a triumph. Flight 1549's crew, in turn, embraced the chance to thank the city and those who mobilized the water rescue of all 150 passengers.

"We got ourselves into the river, but you all got us out of the river," said first officer and co-pilot Jeff Skiles.

Bloomberg presented the keys to Skiles, along with Capt. Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger and flight attendants Sheila Dail, Doreen Welsh and Donna Dent.

Sullenberger ditched the plane into the water after it lost power when it hit a flock of birds minutes after takeoff from LaGuardia Airport. While the pilots were readying for the crash landing, the flight attendants had only seconds to prepare passengers for impact.

The mayor called Sullenberger "Captain Cool," but he also knows a few things about averting air disasters. Bloomberg, a trained pilot, long ago crashed a helicopter that had caught fire, and years later, struggled to land a plane whose propeller failed midair.

"Thank you for saving so many lives, thank you for sparing our city and so many families from an awful tragedy, and thank you for renewing our faith in the strength of human spirit," Bloomberg said.

Each gold-plated pewter key to the city is 5 3/4 inches long, and is a replica of a 19th-century skeleton key that once opened a door at City Hall. It is intended to convey the symbolic honor that the city's gates will always be open to the recipient.

The key comes with no benefit other than bragging rights; Bloomberg has given out about 130 in seven years. "I can't think of a safer group of people to give the keys to, actually," the mayor joked.

Dail said she was honored to accept one.

"If this key makes me a New Yorker, I hope it does, because I'd love to be considered a New Yorker," she said.

Bloomberg also presented Sullenberger with a new copy of a book he had lost in the crash.

Tickets to the Broadway show "Chicago" were also donated to the group, along with a dinner at a Times Square restaurant.

The pilots and flight crew had mixed answers about when they would return to work.

Some said they planned to return soon, others said they needed more time.

Sullenberger said he has flown as a passenger since the crash, and has visited his colleagues in the cockpit.

For a few seconds it feels strange, he said, and then he feels at home.

"I'm looking forward to returning to my profession," he said.