by Aaron Sims
It was twelve years ago that the world learned about the heroism of US Airways pilot Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger. Sully’s Airbus A320 took off from New York’s LaGuardia Airport Jan. 15, 2009. Shortly after takeoff, the plane struck a flock of Canadian geese and lost power in both engines. After realizing he would be unable to make it back to the airport, Sullenberger and copilot Jeff Skiles (who is from Wisconsin) landed the plane on the Hudson River. All 155 people on board survived and were rescued by nearby boats.
Six days earlier, the pilot of a Northwest Airlines flight from Memphis to San Antonio nearly had the same opportunity for Tom Hanks to portray him in a film.
The Admirals were in first place and had recorded points in nine straight games after a 3-2 shootout loss to the Toronto Marlies at the Bradley Center Thurs., Jan. 8, 2009. The next morning, Milwaukee needed to fly to San Antonio for games on Friday and Saturday. Then it was off to Winnipeg for two more games before a stop in Iowa on the 17th of January and a game back at the Bradley Center against Quad City on the 18th.
Normally, the team flew out of Chicago’s O’Hare Airport as there were many more non-stop options out of O’Hare than Milwaukee. However, because of the quick turnaround between Thursday night’s game and Friday’s contest, the Admirals made a rare departure from Milwaukee’s General Mitchell Airport. The flight would go to Memphis, where the team would pick up other passengers and then continue to San Antonio. The team was scheduled to arrive in San Antonio around noon, have lunch, a nap, and go to the game to battle the Rampage.
Best-laid plans, though…
Soon after takeoff from Memphis, the plane carrying the Admirals, several fans, and other passengers had engine trouble. One of the engines failed and the plane circled the airport in Memphis several times before making a rough, but relatively safe landing. Eventually, the passengers were placed on a different airplane and made it to San Antonio around 4:30 pm. The Admirals and Rampage played a hard-fought game with San Antonio emerging with a 2-1 win in overtime.
The following is the story of the day, told through the personal experiences and memories of many players and coaches who were aboard the plane.
LANE LAMBERT (head coach)
I remember us leaving Milwaukee early in the morning heading to San Antonio for a game that night. We had played the night before so all of us were tired and the first leg of the flight was a blur. Most of the guys were sleeping. My seatmate Brad Lauer, my assistant, and I were working on the final game plan for the game. We always chuckled that we were on the milk run and that day was no different. The good news was that even though we had to stop in Memphis, we didn’t have to get off the plane. So once we collected more passengers we were off….. or so we thought!!!!
TRISTON GRANT (forward)
I remember very well that when we were on the runway taking off in Milwaukee that it was taking a much longer time to get off the ground. The rest of the flight was uneventful other than beating my all time score in the classic game of “Tetris”.
DREW MACINTYRE (goalie)
That trip has always stuck in my brain because the day before we had our oldest daughter, Mullen. My wife went 10 days overdue so Lane (Lambert) was keeping me away from the team so I could stay with her but after Mullen was delivered he said, “I’m real sorry but I need you for this road trip.” I remember feeling so bad to leave my wife but, thankfully, my mother-in-law was there.
MARK MATHESON (defenseman)
I can’t recall much about the hockey games, but the flight is still pretty clear in my mind.
RYAN MAKI (forward)
I’ve often brought this story up when people have scary plane experiences.
MARK SANTORELLI (forward)
I remember sitting beside the big man, Hugh Jessiman. I had the middle seat and Jess had the aisle. We were sitting in an exit row.
NICK SPALING (forward)
This maybe wasn’t the same flight, but I think I remember, before takeoff, a flight attendant had to remove a guy’s bag from the overhead because it smelled of gasoline. There was a bit of a scene there and he didn’t want to get rid of his bag. Not that it had anything to do with the rest of the flight, but it made for an interesting start.
KELSEY WILSON (forward)
I was sitting in the very last row next to one of the flight attendants.
BRAD LAUER (assistant coach)
I was sitting with head coach Lane Lambert. We were sitting together, talking about the game that night as we were taking off and the plane just got into the air.
I remember that maybe a minute after takeoff there was a loud bang. The banging continued for several minutes. It was extremely loud and for me it felt like someone had left a hatch open and it was repeatedly banging against the outside of the plane.
SCOTT FORD (defenseman)
There was a big bang, I believe out of the starboard side of the plane. The plane almost immediately banked out towards open land and we felt like we were just gliding in midair.
There was a loud thud, then the plane stopped ascending. We definitely knew something was wrong right away. The pilots didn’t make any announcements, though which made the situation tense. The plane was still flying ok, it wasn’t nose-diving or anything, but definitely stressful.
I do remember the loud bang and then us not going any higher for awhile.
I remember feeling the plane lose power and just hovering at a low altitude.
I remember hearing the little boom or bang and a small drop as we were in the start of our ascent in takeoff, but it wasn’t anything that instantly made me nervous. Then we kept cruising really low, barely above those tall electrical towers. Then, a little smoke smell came into the plane and I remember the panic setting in.
Lane and I were sitting close to the front so we could hear the alarms in the cockpit going off. I remember both Lane and I just looked at each other wondering what happened. You could feel the plane wasn’t getting any more altitude and you could feel a jerking motion from the plane.
Brad was always a little afraid of flying so when we heard the huge bang he looked at me and said “WTF was that?” I looked at him and said “Not sure, but I know it’s not good.” From that point on it was about trying to relax.
I remember the plane was really quiet and everyone was waiting for the pilot to make an announcement. I had another person sitting beside me who was really nervous. Good thing I was beside Jess, who was calm like always.
I can remember the looks on the guys faces, and the Hail Mary’s flying around the plane…like midnight mass at Christmas.
It was interesting to see how people reacted. Some people were joking and laughing about it. Then you had other people that were worried and crying about what could happen.
I think of myself as a good flyer, but my brain did, at one point, wander down the rabbit hole of thinking that we may have to land in a field or something.
I remember us watching out the window as we we’re flying very low and I believe the plane was dumping fuel.
ANDREAS THURESSON (forward)
I normally put noise canceling headphones on and listen to some music, and I did for this trip as well. I didn’t hear much. Then I noticed the plane getting a little “chaotic”.
The biggest thing I remember on the flight was the flight attendant running past us to the back and someone asked her what was going on. She was crying, which was definitely not a comforting feeling.
The worst part of the situation was the passengers in the back looked to the flight attendant. As you know, if he/she is nervous you have problems. She was in tears! She was very young and I felt so bad for her, but it was kind of a chain reaction. The more nervous she got, the more tense the situation became, to the point that an older women sitting close to us started praying rather loudly.
There was someone kind of yelling at the flight attendant, asking what was happening. She was crying. She was saying they were not picking up her call at the front of the plane. At that point I was a little nervous.
I vaguely remember hearing a boom. What I do remember is the female flight attendant sitting next to me was frantic, running up and down the aisle and crying. At one point I truly believed the plane may go down. Knowing that everything was out of my control and I couldn’t do anything to help, I sat back, grabbed a magazine and just hoped for the best.
The pilot was confident on the loudspeaker and I was grateful for that. I thought, “he’s got this” and I was confident because of his demeanor. Brad and I both took out our phones, turned them on, and made a quick call home.
Once the pilot addressed everyone that we had blown an engine, but we were stable and going to be fine, we all had a sigh of relief.
The pilot explained what had happened and that we would be making an emergency landing back at the airport. He further explained that due to the fact we only had one engine we would be landing at a faster speed.
I think the pilot said something like, “brace yourselves for a hard landing”, and I thought “Oh, geez, this can’t be good.”
When we finally saw the runway and all the emergency vehicles lined up waiting for us, the butterflies started up again.
The pilot announced that we would be “coming in hot” without reverse thrusters from the blown engine.
Brad had a pretty good hold of the armrest. That was one time on a flight when you sit beside someone and wrestle for the arm rest…I wasn’t going to win that one.
We hit the brakes pretty hot and I remember the wheels were seized when we came to a stop on the runway. They brought out something to give us a little budge to get the wheels moving, but it didn’t work.
We really came in hot. Hot enough to melt the calipers on the brakes and it just intensified the already noxious smell of smoke due to burned rubber on the tarmac.
Overall, the landing was just like any other. The only difference was we were met by emergency crews.
Emergency vehicles, fire trucks and shuttles greeted us when we finally came to a halt on the runway. We got to utilize the emergency exit protocol that nobody pays attention to during the inflight briefing so, all in all, a great learning experience.
As soon as the plane hit the ground, most people erupted in a cheer and began to clap.
We finally came to a dead sobering stop. The plane was flooded with joy and relief.
We actually ended up stopping/skidding at an angle in the middle of the tarmac. We then had to get off the plane in the middle of the runway and hop on one of the shuttle buses back to the terminal.
There were definitely a lot of thoughts going on in this new Dad’s mind, but I was so thankful we were all ok.
From that point it was back to hockey mode, finding a new flight getting to the game and motivating our players after one of the most, if not THE most, fearful experiences of our lives.
Once safely inside the terminal, our guys dispersed to do God knows what while we waited to figure out another flight to San Antonio. Just the thrill of getting on another plane to play that night had everyone super excited!!!! Rumor has it some guys visited the restroom immediately, some joined in a little prayer, and some had a cocktail or two while contemplating life and what just occurred.
At this point everyone started to breathe a bit easier and laugh about the situation. Especially when they told us that we would be getting back on a plane almost right away. I do remember a few players trying to seek out a bar to help settle the nerves.
I remember by the time we finally got to San Antonio, everyone was pretty amped up. We were telling our versions of the story and we had to go straight to the game.
We went straight to the hotel and ate and then left for the rink shortly thereafter.
Oddly enough I don’t remember much about the game, but I do know that hockey wasn’t the most important thing that night.
We eventually made it safely to the ice surface. I believe we proved that night how really good our team was. To my recollection a 2-1 overtime loss was a huge achievement that fateful day.
I do remember how our coach, Lane Lambert, addressed the team postgame. “That was the best F’ing point we have ever F’ing won boys!” We all may have celebrated life that evening in a fashion only the hockey boys know how.
I’ve been on a lot of planes over the years and had some uneasy rides, but nothing quite like this trip.
We all learned a lesson that day. Life is unpredictable and extremely fragile. To stay alive you need to continue to practice staying in the presence of others that value life as much as you do.