CHARLOTTE, N.C. — It finally arrived.
Two years after a US Airways jet left New York for Charlotte and made a miraculous landing on the Hudson River, it reached its intended destination and future home in a museum.
“My flight has finally come home,” said Eileen Shleffar, who was sitting in seat 13D when the plane splashed in the river.
US Airways Flight 1549 had just taken off from LaGuardia airport when a flock of geese disabled the engines on Jan. 15, 2009. Capt. Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger III safely glided into a water landing. All 155 passengers and crew members were rescued.
Thousands of people in several states have lined up along the road to glimpse the 120-foot-long fuselage on its 600-mile journey on a flatbed truck from Newark, N.J., where it spent the last two years in a hangar. The wings from the damaged Airbus A320 were removed and shipped earlier to the Carolinas Aviation Museum.
Shleffar and other passengers on the flight posed in front of the plane as it arrived in a cargo area at the Charlotte/Douglas International Airport.
“It’s emotional,” she said about seeing the plane for the first time since the landing. “It’s always going to be emotional to us.”
Said fellow passenger Michael Leonard, “It’s surreal.”
As the plane made the final leg of the journey from New Jersey, people sat in lawn chairs or stood with their cameras waiting for it to pass by on the flatbed truck.
“This is a piece of history and I wanted to be here for it,’ said Phillip Franklin, 70, a retired US Airways baggage handler.
His wife, Joann, 69, a retired nurse, agreed.
“You think about what happened and it was a miracle everyone survived. I’m glad the plane is coming here. It should be preserved to remind people of what happened that day,” she said.
Public interest in the jet’s journey this week has surprised and touched the hero pilot who guided it to a safe splashdown.
“When I see images of people in their lawn chairs waiting for the airplane to roll by on the freeway overpass with a camera to get a glimpse of it is surprising and wonderful,” Sullenberger said in an interview.
Sullenberger said the landing still resonates with people.
“It gives them hope. It came at a time during the financial worldwide meltdown and people were quite frankly beginning to question basic goodness of human nature and this kind of reaffirmed our belief in the potential of good that exists in all of us,” he said.
Sullenberger will speak Saturday at a fundraiser for the exhibit. It will be the first time the passengers and crew will be together with the plane since the accident.
“It will feel like a wonderful reunion,” he said. “I think we’ll feel that connection again.”
His speech will include a discussion of the bond that the passengers and crew share.
“We’ll always be joined because of the special bond, and I’m glad the airplane is in Charlotte because that was the destination of the flight,” he said. “We made it to Charlotte and the airplane has now also.”
The museum is raising money toward an exhibit that could cost $2.4 million, said director Shawn Dorsch. Officials say they had collected enough to transport the plane to Charlotte, where Arizona-based US Airways also has a hub.
Sullenberger said the splashdown inspired those involved to make changes. He has fought for better flight safety and improved working conditions for pilots.
“For many it’s become an impetus for change, a catalyst for living a more authentic fuller life. For me, it’s given me the ability to be an advocate of important things,” he said.
Sullenberger was recently named an aviation and safety expert for CBS News.
“This is a completely different life,” he said. “I was completely anonymous. I had never done any public speaking before in my entire life. Now it’s my main job.”
Carolinas Aviation Museum: http://www.carolinasaviation.org/
US Airways: http://www2.usairways.com