Sunday, July 10, 2011

A new insight takes flight

Clay Presley is at 2,700 feet when he radios in. “One mile east,” he tells the air traffic near the Rock Hill airport. The sky is clear. “We’re going to be doing a power out,” he says.

It’s a Wednesday afternoon, and the single-engine Cessna he’s flying sways in the warm Carolina crosswinds. Presley is working on some final flight training before he takes what’s called a “check ride” in two days. If that ride goes as he hopes, he’ll get his pilot’s license.

But first, there are some maneuvers to work on, including this one, the power out – a simulated emergency landing. “We’re practicing what you do if you lose your motor one day,” says Troy Fleming, the instructor.

Presley has piloted this landing before, but not with anyone in the back seat, changing the weight near the tail. That’s what you have to deal with in planes – the unanticipated, big and small. Clay Presley knows about the big kind.

Two years ago, he was a passenger on Flight 1549, which lost its power above New York City before Capt. Chesley Chelsey Sullenberger skimmed it safely on the Hudson River. Presley thought he was going to die that January day. Then he needed to understand why he didn’t.

And so he’s here, 2,700 feet in the sky above Rock Hill, where he flicks a switch to make the engine go quiet, and he begins to dive toward the ground again.


On the afternoon of Jan. 15, 2009, Clay Presley boarded his flight to Charlotte from New York, where he and a business associate had been exploring an acquisition. Presley owns Carolina Pad, a Charlotte company that designs school and office products. His work put him on planes regularly, maybe three or four times a month, enough that he hardly felt the bumps and sways that make other fliers jumpy.

Presley was in seat 15D on the 2:45 flight. He read the newspaper instead of listening to the flight attendant’s safety talk. He hardly noticed the takeoff – thrust, lift, smooth as usual.
Then, an explosion. “It felt as if the plane just stopped in midair,” he remembers. “As many times as I’ve flown, I’ve never experienced that kind of thing.”

His first thought: “A bomb.” Then, moments later, he remembered a colleague telling him a similar explosion that week caused by birds hitting an engine in another New York-to-Charlotte flight. Was that it? He didn’t have time to ponder. A haze – and a terrible smell – spread through the cabin.

Soon, Sullenberger was on the intercom telling the passengers to brace for impact. “I was scared to death,” Presley says, but he also found himself oddly calm. He counted rows between his and the exit row. He saw the Hudson River and coached himself to take a deep breath on impact. It was, he says now, a semi-euphoric feeling. But he was a realist, too: He grabbed his Blackberry and sent his wife, Carol, a simple email: “I love you.”

Flight 1549 hit the Hudson tail first, then front. The impact threw people against their seat restraints – “like a hard car accident,” Presley says. It was quiet for a moment as everyone absorbed that the worst hadn’t happened. Then somebody said, “Open the doors,” and when someone did, it wasn’t water that came pouring through, but light.

“Heavenly light,” Presley says.


One day later, he was on a plane again. After 1549, he and his colleague had talked about driving back to Charlotte instead of flying, but they decided to sit on a flight before takeoff and see how it felt. Flight attendants wanted to hear their story, and talking about it made the prospect of flying again a little easier.

From there, he flew at about the same pace he had before 1549. But the emotional trauma from that flight had rooted deep in him, and it surfaced when he got on other planes. He grew anxious quickly. Turbulence sent his heart drumming. He understood why some of the 1549 passengers hadn’t been on a plane since, but his business left him with little choice.

On one business trip that June, he called Sullenberger in San Francisco and met with him for a quick hello. They talked about the flight, of course, and at one point, Sully said: “How was it in the back of the plane?” Presley responded, almost sarcastically, “We were only about 40 feet apart.”

But when he thought about it later, he realized what the pilot was asking: What was it like, not knowing what was happening?

Last September, Presley flew to Wisconsin for a television documentary about 1549. There, 1549’s first officer Jeff Skiles took him up in a 1935 ?Waco biplane. Presley had flown in single-engine planes before, with his son, Brad, who has a license. This time, Skiles talked to Presley about the technical part of flying – what was happening in front of the plane. By the time Presley left for Charlotte, he knew how he could overcome the trauma.

On Oct. 2, with Troy Fleming in the right seat, Presley taxied the Cessna to the Rock Hill runway for his first flight. Fleming told him to do the takeoff. A frightened Presley said, “If you insist,” and did just that. “I was all over the place,” he says.

This time, with Fleming’s help, he understood what was happening. He learned about planes inside and out, and why they do what they do, good and bad. “I started to understand from a very elementary position what was happening that day on 1549,” he says. “How could we stay up as long as we did? What were the scenarios he was going through? I began to get it.”

Fleming has had only a handful of students who’ve decided that learning to fly is the best path to conquering their fears. “They do a lesson or two,” he says. “One guy was afraid of horses and airplanes. He flew for an hour. That was enough. Nobody has gone all the way to getting his license.”


At 2,700 feet, Presley and Fleming are tour guides. They point down to the Catawba River, the Sun City development. On a clear day, you can see Asheville from here. On this Wednesday, we settle for a spectacular view of Charlotte.

“The ability to fly around and look and see what’s here is phenomenal,” Presley says. But like any pilot, he loves the last part most. “A smooth landing – there’s not a better feeling in the world,” he says.

The Cessna crosses the river at a pace that would be serene – if it weren’t accompanied by bumps and jolts. Those, explains Fleming, are thermals. Hot air rises at a different speed coming off trees than it does water, or buildings, or asphalt. Presley nods. “The first time you say ‘Oh, my gosh, what’s going on?’ ” he says. “Eventually you don’t notice it.”

Now, he says, he has gone from being intimidated by planes to respecting them. Fleming says his student is at the level where the regular flying stuff is second nature. Now they practice the things you don’t expect. A short runway to land on. An engine outage.

That’s what’s next today. The key to power out landings, says Fleming, is managing the path of the descent. Go down too steep and you’ll arrive at your target traveling too fast. Not steep enough and your airspeed will be too slow.

A mile from the runway, the engine goes quietly to idle. Presley banks to the left, toward the airport, and begins to glide...

He thinks often about when Sully banked toward the Hudson that day, two years ago. If he knew then what he knows now, he would’ve understood better what was going on. Would he still have been scared? Of course. But knowing, even now, changes things. “It helps me deal emotionally with what happened,” he says.

At 1,500 feet, he circles toward the runway. “That’s your picture – it’s perfect,” Fleming says, looking at the monitor. “Yep,” Presley says ...

He is still sorting through it all – not just the flying part, but how 1549 will edit the chapters to come in his life. He’s always thought of himself as a positive person, he says, and he’s long tried to find a healthy mix of family, charity and business. Now he is more purposeful with the things he can control, more grateful that he has that opportunity. It’s what brought him here, to another plane, and to the license he’ll earn two days from this landing.

He takes a sharp turn toward runway 20. “Short final two zero,” he says, indicating his final approach to the runway. He comes in with the nose of the plane turned slightly right – a “crab” approach to compensate for a crosswind. He touches, left wheels first.

“Very nice,” says Fleming. Presley would’ve liked it a little smoother, but it was fine, he says. He thinks of that other power out landing, two years ago. “Sully called it an emergency landing,” he says. “The passengers called it a crash landing.” Now he understands the difference, and he laughs at that, safely on the ground, and gets ready to go up again.


Anonymous said...

Excellent story! Always like it when people face events by learning and increasing their experiences. Congrats on becoming a pilot!

Wiley Coyote said...

Good story Pete....

pstonge said...

Thanks, Wiley. A fun one to tell.

Anonymous said...

Hi Peter. Great story. What airport did he get his pilot's license at?

pstonge said...

Anon, 1:59: Clay did his successful check ride for his license at Bryant Field in Rock Hill.

Duggles said...

Great Story Pete. Makes me want to go get my license one day.

equusjmc said...

Great story Peter! Great job Clay! I'm proud of you!

Charlie Elberson said...

Clay's a terrific guy and I'm grateful to see this side of him through this wonderful story.

Anonymous said...

Awesome job Uncle Clay!!! Great article! Thank you!