As the host of a STEM in 30, a TV show for middle school students from the National Air and Space Museum, I’ve been able to do some amazing things. I’ve flown in a helicopter with no doors, rode in a hot air balloon, and I’ve interviewed some amazing people from astronauts to engineers. Recently, however, I experienced one of the most powerful interviews I have ever done.
Beth McHugh was a passenger on US Airways flight 1549. This was the flight that hit geese just after takeoff and made an emergency landing in the Hudson River in New York in 2009. You may know this flight from the recent movie Sully, or by its popular name, the Miracle on the Hudson. I met Beth while filming for an upcoming STEM in 30 show about the science of safety.
We traveled to Charlotte, North Carolina, to visit the Airbus A320-214 aircraft, or flight 1549, at the Carolinas Aviation Museum. We got to the museum early to set up for the interview. When we walked into the hangar and saw the plane for the first time, I was amazed at how good the plane looked. There were scars and dents and there were no engines under the wings, but unless you knew what the plane had been through, you wouldn’t guess it had made an emergency water landing.
I knew I would be interviewing one of the passengers, but I didn’t know who, or what to expect. Then, in walks Beth. She was soft spoken and kind, someone you might spend hours on a couch with getting lost in conversation.
As we were setting up our microphones for the interview, we made small talk and I asked her a few questions about the flight. I didn’t want to ask too much before the cameras were rolling, but I wanted a little information to prepare for what to ask next. I’d researched the flight, but didn’t know much about her individual story. I asked her where she was sitting—20C—and why she was on the flight that day—traveling for work. When the cameras started rolling I did my normal introduction and simply asked her to tell us about that day. I like to talk. I’m always prepared with follow-up questions. But on this day, I slowed down and let Beth tell her story. The more she said, the more wrapped up in it I became. It was no longer an interview, I was simply listening to her incredible tale. A couple times as she told her story I felt my nose tingle and tears start to form. It was everything I could do not to cry.
Her story included drama, heroics, and amazingly a happy ending. All 155 people on board made it out alive with few major injuries. Her story also includes something very important for those of us who fly: safety and how important it is. She had read the card that day and listened to the flight crew. In our interview, she talked about how doing these things helped to save lives.
I flew three days later with my wife and two small children. As we walked onto the plane, I could hear Beth’s voice in my head. I counted how many rows it was to the closest emergency exit—four for my son and I, and three for my wife and daughter. I read the safety card and had my wife read it as well. I reached under my seat and my son’s seat to find the emergency life vest. I paid attention to the flight crew and looked at them with a renewed sense of respect, knowing that if something happened on that flight they would be the ones who could save our lives.
Doing these simple things took only a few moments, and as I looked around and saw so few people doing the same thing, I was reminded of Beth and how she stressed the importance of the safety information and crew. Thanks to her, I will never fly the same way again, and I feel safer and better prepared in case of an emergency. Sometime I’d like to sit on her couch and thank her for helping to keep me and my family safe when we fly.
How often do you pay attention to the safety briefing during a flight? Have you ever read the safety pamphlet or checked for your flotation device?