By Brady Rhoades
When you think of Chesley Sullenberger, III—Capt. Sully or just plain Sully to the public—his improbable landing of an engines-dead US Airways airplane on the Hudson River comes to mind.
Perhaps you picture 155 survivors getting hoisted to safety off the wings of Flight 1549.
The word “hero” is bandied about—an ice-in-his-veins, former fighter pilot in the U.S. military saving the day.
And then Capt. Sully states: “It took me 40 years to become an overnight success. All my life, I was preparing myself for some kind of challenge.”
Legend, meet reality.
And, you know what? Reality surpasses legend.
Because it took decades of education, toil, training, more learning, more work, and more practice for Capt. Sully to help save all those lives and pull off what’s known as the “Miracle on the Hudson.”
It also took humility. Few remember that Capt. Sully was the last one off the plane.
“As soon as we landed, I knew my responsibilities were not over,” he said. “Four hours later, I learned that everyone had been saved. Only then were my professional obligations fulfilled.”
Capt. Sully, who speaks in the measured, modest tone of a seasoned veteran, said the Miracle on the Hudson was a team effort.
“I think the fact that this group of people—first responders, crew, passengers—all felt the same common humanity and rose to the occasion, that is the essential lesson here, a hopeful one.”
During speeches, Capt. Sully emphasizes teamwork, and often singles out co-pilot Jeff Skiles.
On January 15, 2009, Capt. Sully, a former fighter pilot for the U.S. Air Force, took off from LaGuardia Airport. Minutes into the flight, the plane struck a gaggle of geese northeast of the George Washington Bridge. All engine power was lost, leaving Flight 1549 powerless.
All this occurred at about 2,800 feet and 4.5 miles from LaGuardia. Passengers and crew heard loud bangs and saw flames from the engines, followed by silence and the stench of fuel.
Realizing that both engines had shut down, Capt. Sully took control while Skiles worked a checklist for engine restart.
What was Capt. Sully’s first task? Calming his mind and body, which, naturally, had been thrust into full alarm. This had to be tended to so that he could make sound decisions and physically finesse the plane to safety.
How does one get a racing mind and pounding heart under control?
The pilot’s military training kicked in, for one. It took him about five seconds to gather himself and lock into the nerve-wracking responsibility at hand, he said.
All that preparation had paid off.
Capt. Sully had precious little time to make a life-or-death decision. Namely, to go back to LaGuardia or …
He decided to land on the icy Hudson.
His famous words to the crew and passengers: “Brace for impact.”
And then the so-called miracle happened. But it wasn’t a miracle. It was the result of Sully’s training and leadership, and of the dedication and teamwork of the crew and passengers. It was a testament to the old saying, “The harder you work, the luckier you get.”
The country—suffering through war and economic hardship—cheered. Viewers stayed glued to their TV sets as reams of passengers, standing on the wings of the bobbing plane, were helped to safety.
Precisely when we needed it, we had a hero.
Chesley Sullenberger, III was born in Denison, Texas, on January 23, 1951.
As a boy, he watched planes fly across the seemingly-endless southern sky; he was fascinated.
A passion for flying, and a commitment to leadership and safety, took root early on.
He learned from his father—a World War II veteran—“to do what veterans do. To serve.”
Sullenberger continues to support the military and veterans’ causes.
“A tiny fraction of our population is doing the heavy lifting,” he said. “They’re choosing to serve, to delay their own gratification, to put themselves at risk, to do for others what they cannot and will not do for themselves. That selfless act needs to be cherished… And not just with thank you’s in airports.”
Cherishing our military men and women means equipping them properly, he said, and helping those who return from duty with ailments.
”It’s a national disgrace that the rate of suicide among veterans is so high. We need to do a better job.”
Sullenberger enrolled in the U.S. Air Force Academy in 1969, and graduated as an officer in 1973 with a bachelor of science degree. He also holds master’s degrees from Purdue University and the University of Northern Colorado.
Sullenberger served as a fighter pilot for the U.S. Air Force from 1973 to 1980, flying Vietnam-era F-4 Phantom II jets. He was a flight leader and a training officer and attained the rank of captain while building up experience overseas and at Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada.
An elite pilot, Sullenberger was the mission commander for Red Flag exercises, in which pilots receive advanced aerial combat training. He was also a member of an aircraft accident investigation board.
In 1980, Sullenberger joined Pacific Southwest Airlines as a commercial pilot (Pacific Southwest was acquired in 1988 by what would become US Airways). Over his years as a professional pilot, he was an instructor, as well as an Air Line Pilots Association safety chairman and accident investigator.
About a year after the Hudson landing, Capt. Sully retired.
He now concentrates on running his safety consulting business, Safety Reliability Methods, Inc., which was founded in 2007 and focuses on management, safety, and performance.
He has helped develop new protocols for airline safety, and served as the co-chairman, along with Skiles, of the EAA’s Young Eagles youth introduction-to-aviation program from 2009 to 2013.
In 2009, HarperCollins published Capt. Sully’s memoir, Highest Duty: My Search for What Really Matters. In 2012, he published “Making a Difference: Stories of Vision and Courage From America’s Leaders.”
In 2011, he became a CBS News contributor as the network’s Aviation and Safety Expert, a role which he holds today.
He also serves on the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Advisory Committee for Automation in Transportation.
Much of his time is spent speaking in the United States and abroad about flight safety issues.
He’s delivered more than 200 keynote addresses to date, and often speaks for large corporations such as Dupont, Chevron, and AT&T, specializing in topics such as leadership, crisis management, and overcoming obstacles.
Sully, a movie about Capt. Sully, directed by Clint Eastwood and starring Tom Hanks in the title role, was released in September 2016.
That’s another thing. When you say “Sully,” millions of people think of Tom Hanks, who said he was honored to portray Capt. Sully.
It’s worth noting that at the time of the Hudson landing, Capt. Sully was a 57-year-old pilot who’d sustained a pay cut because airlines’ revenues were slowing and, some argue, pilots were under-valued.
These days, Capt. Sully’s life is
about what he learned long ago, from his father and from his military commanders: service. Hard work. Discipline. Values. Believing in a better world, a better future.
That means lobbying for pilots. It means pushing for greater safety measures in an industry that’s already pretty darn safe. That’s a through-line throughout Capt. Sully’s life of service: safety. Trust in our institutions. Touchstones in this grand experiment called America.
“My military training and service, especially the flight training, helped me to really realize the importance of adhering to core values and having the discipline to approach every job I’ve had with a professional attitude,” Capt. Sully said. “The discipline of the military helped me to have a discipline. Not just think of a job but a calling… Our society at large really needs people with these core values.”
That’s why veterans are worthy of hiring, in a variety of fields.
“They are a valuable resource and it’s a national treasure to have people with those skills and attitudes,” Capt Sully said.
He knows, because he’s one of them.
And it doesn’t matter if you call them miracle-makers or simply state that they’re prepared.
The results are in: Veterans make our world safer, better.