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Passengers revisit 'Miracle on Hudson'

Air controller, 52 passengers mark third anniversary of crash.

By Mark Washburn
mwashburn@charlotteobserver.com

Coming soon to a museum near you - two communication headsets.

Set one belonged to Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger, who you know as the captain of the Charlotte-bound "Miracle on the Hudson" flight. They were found in the cockpit of the US Airways jetliner after it was brought last summer to the Carolinas Aviation Museum, where it is on display to the public.

Set two comes from Patrick Harten, whose name you don't remember. He was the cool-headed air traffic controller who tried to talk the crippled plane back to the ground.

Harten was in Charlotte on Sunday for the third anniversary of the remarkable splashdown. In all, 52 passengers from the flight came to the museum, behind Charlotte Douglas International Airport, and took their old seats aboard the jetliner at 3:31 p.m., marking the moment the plane hit the frigid Hudson River.

Jan. 15, 2009 was a slow day by Harten's standards. He sometimes directs up to 20 planes at once, establishing contact when they're 100 feet off the LaGuardia runway and vectoring them for the next 40 miles or so.

Harten vividly remembers the last Flight 1549 (US Airways retired the flight number the next day). He was trying to turn the jetliner west after a routine takeoff when Sullenberger reported he'd hit birds and lost both engines.

Couldn't believe response

Harten, 37, a 10-year veteran of one of the busiest air traffic control centers in the world, had never faced an emergency like that before.

"We work under constant stress, so you have to learn how to work the circumstances," he said Sunday.

First, Harten called LaGuardia to open runways for the plane to return. He was mindful that the situation in the cockpit would be intense and kept his interruptions minimal.

"He was very busy trying to handle the airplane so our communications are short and to the point," Harten said.

Sullenberger asked about diverting to the airport in Teterboro, N.J., and Harten called the tower there to get him a runway. But Sullenberger decided he couldn't make it.

"He basically said he was going into the river."

Harten got confused momentarily, unsure he'd heard the pilot correctly.

"He was saying something to me that was like a death sentence because I didn't think you could pull that off. I had a hard time grasping what he said."

Flight 1549 went off the radar. Harten was pulled from duty to make a statement about what happened.

"I was down there 45 minutes before anybody told me they had made it. I sat there thinking everyone had probably died. I had a hard time believing it - I thought, 'That's impossible. But awesome!' "

Sunday at 3:31 p.m., Harten was given a special seat aboard the salvaged, 33-ton Airbus 320 - Sullenberger's, inside the cockpit. Sullenberger had family obligations Sunday and didn't attend.

Both cathartic and eerie

Not everyone was wild about getting back on that plane. Amber Wells, who works for NASCAR, felt it would be a little creepy, but did it anyway, snapping a picture of her row and seat, 20F.

Jim Whitaker, a Charlotte architect, sat right in front of her. Three years ago, he had managed to get aboard Flight 1549 on standby, only to regret it because he was seated next to a woman with a crying baby.

After the crash, Whitaker made his way back to LaGuardia and managed to get aboard a 10 p.m. flight to Charlotte with other survivors. When it got airborne, he recalled, everyone aboard applauded.

Denise Lockie, a Staples executive from Charlotte who flies frequently, found that sitting back in her first-class seat three years later was cathartic.

"And a little eerie," she said.

In row 9, the passengers marked the anniversary of the moment by bending down to brace for impact once again. Glenn Carlson, a Charlotte software consultant and the unofficial court jester of the survivors' clan, snuck some Scotch aboard and offered everyone shots.

He was careful to violate flight-attendant protocol for the event.

"I made sure first class got served last," he said.

Washburn: 704-358-5007.
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