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Miracle on the Pacific

Three words you never want to hear on an airliner: “Brace for impact.” Captain Chesley Sullenberger’s announcement over the intercom as he prepared to ditch an Airbus A320 in the Hudson River on January 15 preceded the “miracle on the Hudson” and media blitz that followed. The successful ditching and survival of all 155 on board provided a welcome respite from the nonstop dire economic news earlier this year. But despite the assertions of some media reports, it was not the first time a U.S. airliner has ditched without loss of life.

Halfway between Hawaii and San Francisco on October 15, 1956, passengers aboard the Boeing 377 Stratocruiser Sovereign of the Skies were awakened at 3:20 a.m. by Pan Am Captain Richard Ogg. “We have an emergency,” he told them, according to a Time magazine account. “Our No. 1 engine is uncontrolled. A ditching at sea is likely.” The Strato­cruiser soon lost power to its No. 4 engine, making an eventual ditching inevitable.

Fortunately for all aboard, the U.S. Coast Guard cutter Pontchartrain was stationed nearby, serving as a communications relay station for airplanes crossing the ocean. Captain Ogg decided to circle the cutter and burn off fuel until daylight to make the ditching and rescue easier. Meanwhile, the flight crew cleared the cabin of loose objects and reminded passengers how to assume crash positions and inflate their life jackets. Aware of an incident the previous year involving another Stratocruiser, in which the plane’s tail section had broken off during a water landing, the purser cleared passengers from the rear berth area.

Shortly before 8:15 a.m., Ogg brought the airliner down near Pontchartrain at 90 knots with full flaps. The landing looked good at first, but then one of the Stratocruiser’s wings caught a swell, the plane spun and the tail section sheared off. Passengers sustained only minor injuries, though, and were quickly ushered into inflatable life rafts. The Coast Guard rescued all 31 on board. (You can view a Coast Guard film of the rescue at; search for “Pan Am Flight 943.”)

If there’s a lesson here—besides pay attention to the flight attendants’ life vest demonstration—it’s that “miracles” like these don’t happen without a professional captain and crew. Like Captain Sullenberger more than five decades later, who said of himself and his crew, “We were simply doing the job we were trained to do,” Captain Ogg downplayed his accomplishment. “We had a certain job to do,” he told reporters. “We had to do it right or else.”

Next time you arrive home safely from an overseas flight, be sure to thank the captain and crew. You couldn’t have made it without them.