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Passenger 15D

By Bret Steffen, EAA’s Director of Education

September 2016 - Folks who are active in EAA and chapters play a big role in keeping recreational aviation alive; in my job here, I witness this each and every day. Once in a while a great story is made even more poignant because of knowing “the rest of the story,” (a blatant rip off of long time EAA supporter Paul Harvey).

The story of passenger 15D, is associated with a new movie about a certain miracle on a river in New York. Like me, you will appreciate the ripple effect of this incredible event.

Passenger 15D was typical of most passengers on US Airways Flight 1549, he lived in Charlotte, North Carolina, and just wanted to get home after taking care of some business in New York. Boats and salt water fishing in the Atlantic were his passion — he was not a pilot, and really had no intention of becoming one at that point in his life.

EAA was something he had never even heard of.

Clay Presley, now EAA 1057163, was in seat 15D, a passenger on the US Airways flight that frigid morning of January 15, 2009, when the Airbus A-320 lost both its engines due to a bird strike, and ditched in the Hudson river just minutes after taking off from La Guardia Airport. You can see Clay in the famous picture with all of the passengers standing on the wings of the aircraft furthest on the right side of the photo.

The rest of this story isn’t how Clay was inspired to learn to fly simply because of his experience on Flight 1549. A forced water landing into the 36 degree waters of the Hudson would probably turn a lot of people off of aviation, but that wasn’t the case for Clay.

A very successful businessman, Clay is most at ease when he is in control of a situation. Knowledge is power. Learning to fly would ensure that he understood what was happening on the flights he continued to take with the airlines. It would also allow him to fly to business meetings in locations that were hard to access with an airliner. These were some factors that led Clay into aviation—but the most important factor of all was the connection he would have with a long-time EAA chapter member.

Clay agreed to participate in a documentary on Flight 1549, but the folks making the documentary were also trying to engage Jeff Skiles, EAA 336120, the first officer of Flight 1549, and were not having much luck. Jeff had already done a ton of interviews and was burned out from talking about that story.

Jeff finally agreed to be interviewed, but the stipulation was they had to come to Wisconsin, where Jeff lives, for the interview. Clay was caught up in this process, and also had to trek to Wisconsin for his part in the documentary.

Jeff Skiles is a true EAAer and real chapter guy. He talks the talk and walks the walk. He has been heavily engaged with Chapter 431 in Broadhead, Wisconsin, for years. He is also one of the nicest and most down to earth people I have ever met.

When Jeff found out that Clay had to come to Wisconsin because he refused to do the interview someplace else, he felt guilty.

Jeff ended up spending time with Clay after the interviews and took him to Broadhead to show him his beautiful Waco biplane. Then they met some of the other folks at the little airport. This is what really lit the fire under Clay to pursue learning to fly ­- spending time with a true EAA ambassador, and being introduced to Jeff’s aviation family.

Today, Clay flies hundreds of hours each year as pilot in command. He and his family come to AirVenture and they camp in the campground right next to Jeff every year. They are best of friends, and Clay is now part of the EAA family.

The power of EAA and the relationships we can build in our communities can’t be understated in my eyes. It all starts with your chapter and you.

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