Peter St. Onge

Miracle on the Hudson passenger chooses novel way to face fear of flying

In the 10 years since he was a passenger on Flight 1549, Clay Presley has been asked one question more than any other: What has he accomplished in his life since that day Capt. Chesley Sullenberger skimmed an Airbus 320 safely on the Hudson River? Presley figures he’ll get that question today, too, so he pulls out a notepad and places it on his lap. “I made a list,” he says.

We are sitting in the Carolinas Aviation Museum, which will celebrate the 10-year anniversary of Flight 1549 on Tuesday. A lot has happened since then for Clay Presley, as it would for any of us in a decade worth of days. But when they’re 10 years you might not have seen, things look a little different. So here goes. “First,” Presley says, “I have eight more grandchildren, with two more on the way.” Also, he says, he saw his two youngest children graduate from college and get married. Also, he decided to sell his company.

“And,” he says, “I learned how to fly.”

This is a story about how moments can define us. It’s not, however, about how we’re defined by one moment, because that’s not usually how it works — even for the biggest moments. For Clay Presley, that moment came on a 2:45 p.m. flight to Charlotte from New York on Jan. 15, 2009. Presley was a regular flier then; the office product design company he owned put him on planes three to four times a month. So he didn’t pay attention to the obligatory safety presentation that day, nor the taxi and takeoff, nor anything else until the explosion.

At first, he thought it was a bomb. A haze — and an awful smell — filled the cabin. Soon, Sullenberger got on the intercom and told the passengers to brace for impact. “I was scared to death,” he remembers, but he also was oddly calm. He grabbed his Blackberry and sent his wife, Carol, a message: “I love you.” Then the impact came — like a hard car accident — then quiet, then someone saying “Open the doors.”

Remember that iconic photo of passengers on the plane’s wings? Presley is the blurry figure on the far right. Soon, the rescue boats would come, and the reporters and cameramen would arrive. Presley would get on a plane back to Charlotte, tell his story dozens of times, be part of a television documentary, even meet Sullenberger and his fellow 1549 passengers before finally getting on with his life.

Except for this: He became anxious about flying. He’d heard some of his fellow 1549 passengers were avoiding flying, but Presley had little choice with his business. Something had to change.

That summer, he remembered a conversation with Sullenberger shortly after 1549. Presley had flown to San Francisco for work and met Sully for a quick hello. They talked about the flight, of course, and Sullenberger asked: “How was it in the back of the plane?” Presley responded: “We were only 40 feet apart,” but when he thought about it later, he realized that Sullenberger wasn’t asking if the feeling was different 15 rows back. He was asking what it was like not understanding what was happening. It was then Presley realized that he wanted to understand.

That fall, he began taking flying lessons with single engine planes in Rock Hill. He learned about aircraft inside and out, about lift and turbulence, about why things happen the way they do. In the summer of 2011, two years after Flight 1549, Presley earned his private pilot’s license. By then, he not only had overcome his anxiety, but found that he loved being in the air.

Something else has happened, too: Presley has made new and deep friendships within the aviation community. “Every year I send a note to Sully and (Flight 1549 co-pilot) Jeff Skiles,” he says, and he shows me the latest. “It’s a wonderful community of smart people,” he says. “I never would’ve met them if it weren’t for that.”

He ‘s up to 600 hours total now as a pilot, enough to understand that something unexpected happens most every flight. Usually it’s small things, although he remembers one solo flight from Arkansas a few years back when he came up too fast on a winter storm front. “The turbulence was bad,” he said. “I was nervous.” But he piloted himself to a safer place, and he learned to respect weather differently. “Every time you fly, there’s a lesson,” he says.

That includes Flight 1549, of course.

Presley glances at his notepad. A museum tour group walks around the plane. A guide tells them that 1549 was a rarity — a commercial airline crash without fatalities. Presley remembers how a friend told him once that 1549 should be a defining moment in his life, but not the defining moment. That’s true, he says. That day gave him the opportunity to see things differently, and that’s what he’s done. “I approach things with a more purposeful focus now,” he says. “I really try to understand what it is that I want to accomplish.”

And so he has his list. His accomplishments. His children and grandchildren and the pilot’s license. Also, he’s built a house in the Bahamas. He flies with his son, who also has a private license. He’s fished with friends.

Three-thousand, six hundred and fifty days. He’s lived.

He nods at that.

“I’ve lived.”