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In their second lives, Flight 1549 crash survivors check off their bucket lists

By Mark Washburn
Mark Washburn
Mark Washburn writes television and radio commentary for The Charlotte Observer.

Your outlook on life changes after you’ve ridden a powerless jetliner toward the icy Hudson River and hear a voice over the intercom: “This is the captain. Brace for impact.”

You change your priorities. You lose interest in life’s little dramas. You measure your age in Flight 1549 years.

You make a bucket list.

Passengers from the Charlotte area who were on the “Miracle on the Hudson” flight are marking their fifth anniversary of the splashdown Wednesday. Ask them about their personal bucket lists from the last five years, and they’ll tell you how they’ve ditched careers, faced challenges with a new outlook, taken to the heavens in a pilot’s seat.

More than anyone, they understand the length of a lifetime, or two.

Perhaps none have gone so far as Barry Leonard, who on Aug. 22, 2013, checked off this one: climbing to the 19,341-foot summit of Mount Kilimanjaro.

Leonard, CEO of the textile company Welspun USA, made the trek with his 23-year-old son, Matthew. They stood in the thin, cold air atop the African continent for about 45 minutes.

“It’s desolate,” says Leonard, 60. “It looks like what I would think the moon looks like. There’s the inside of a volcano on one side and glaciers on the other. You’re minuscule compared with them.”

Leonard says Capt. Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger’s cryptic warning continues to resonate in his life.

“To ‘brace for impact’ has become the appropriate phrase for every day of my life. If you’re going to have goals, you have to have bold goals. … A lot of people talk about bucket lists, and I do it.”

He’s not done yet. On this year’s list is meeting the Dalai Lama. He’s got a friend with contacts working on it.

Family now comes first

Beth McHugh was a hard-charging businesswoman who worked with information systems for hospitals. She had clients in New Jersey and Long Island, and she was a frequent rider on the daily US Airways afternoon flight from LaGuardia to Charlotte.

After the crash, she decided she had better things to do than work.

“I realized that working 14 hours a day was not how I wanted to spend my life, after I got my life back,” McHugh says.

She decided to retire at 65, and did so a year after the crash. Suddenly, family came first.

She has 12 siblings, three daughters and seven grandchildren in need of spoiling. She still flies frequently, but her destination is usually to see relatives.

She also speaks to groups at the Carolinas Aviation Museum, where the fuselage of the Airbus A320 is on display.

“I tell people that if there’s a lesson in all this, it’s that if you’ve got something in your life that needs (to be) resolved, do it now. Don’t wait for that perfect moment. There’s nothing worse than looking at death in the face and saying, ‘I wish I had done this.’ Now I know you should not put anything off.”

People have approached her to say they intend to take her advice. “They say things like, ‘I haven’t talked to my parents and brothers and sisters in 10 years, and I’m going to make that call tonight.’ 

Dealing with challenge

Tracey Allen-Wolsko, 42, a senior vice president at Bank of America, began having health problems after the crash – vertigo, loss of energy, facial pains, spasms.

“I went to the doctor and was told, ‘Of course you’re having spasms – you were in a plane crash!’ And they doubled the anxiety meds.”

But symptoms worsened. She had more tests 18 months after the crash and was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis.

“I was an angry, bitter person,” says Wolsko. “I was, like, you’ve got to be kidding. I walk away from that and go to this. Somebody said whatever you’re doing, the universe is trying to tell you it’s not working.”

Wolsko soon bounced back. She’s petite, funny, self-deprecating and chats like a teenager.

“I said, ‘You’ve got MS, dude.’ I’ve dealt with scarier than that. I’m extra special now because I have the MS and the plane crash, and I still search for purpose and meaning. … I battle a little, orange, hairy monster called MS.”

Wolsko says she takes life a lot easier since the crash. She doesn’t sweat the small stuff, doesn’t get involved in other people’s little life dramas. She knows she’s got a mild form of MS and knows others with more severe forms. “I don’t have much to complain about. Every day is a gift.”

On her bucket list this year is a trip to Italy. She’s going with her dear friend Vicki Barnhardt. They met on Flight 1549, seated side by side in the last row.

Back to the skies

After the crash, Clay Presley was bothered by anxiety when he flew. He decided to confront it in an unusual way: He earned a pilot’s license.

Presley, 59, owns Carolina Pad, a Charlotte company that designs school and office products. Since the crash, he’s already checked off riding down the Grand Canyon on a raft.

He’s also become close friends with Jeff Skiles, the first officer aboard Flight 1549. He and Skiles recently got qualified for piloting float planes, what people usually call seaplanes. “Now he and I can fly and land planes on the water – legally.”

They went to Alaska with Presley’s son Brad, also a pilot. “We flew float planes and bush planes. Landed on rock bars on the creeks and small Alaskan runways between pine trees.” They were there five days and stayed in a lodge.

A month ago, Presley took delivery of his own plane, a four-seat Cirrus SR22. It’s one of those small planes good for people with anxiety about flying – it comes with a parachute system. No, really, it does.

“Guess what my tail number is,” says Presley.

OK, what’s the tail number?

“November one-five-four-nine hotel.” That’s 1549 to the rest of us, and Presley says it with the excitement of a 5-year-old.

Washburn: 704-358-5007
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