"Brace for impact," US Airways Captain Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger's three chilling words reached his passengers before echoing around the world.
It was Sullenberger's experience, airline safety expertise, and military training that contributed to his Miracle on the Hudson. Aviation is not just his livelihood; it is a lifelong passion.
"I have a clear recollection that at age five I already knew I was going to spend my life flying airplanes," Sullenberger, a tall, thin, distinguished-looking 59-year-old man, reminisces.
Early lessons in a single-engine crop duster had him soaring above Denison, TX, his hometown, as a 16-year-old. He earned his pilot's license before his license to drive a car. His first commercial flight found him accompanying his mom, a first-grade teacher, to her state PTA convention. This constituted both his (at age 11) and his mom's first flight.
The world witnessed one of the most amazing days in aviation history when Sullenberger landed a crippled US Airways 76-ton Airbus with 155 people onboard onto the Hudson River. Both plane engines had been blown out after striking a flock of Canadian geese.
"It was the worst, sickening, pit-of-your-stomach-falling-through-the-fall feeling I felt in my entire life," he explains emotionally. "I knew immediately it was very bad, that this was unlike any flight I'd had in 42 years, that it wasn't going to end with an airplane undamaged on a runway."
At a low altitude, traveling at a low speed, in an aircraft with no working engines, Sullenberger had few choices. He quickly surmised that the Hudson was long enough, wide enough, and, on that day, smooth enough to land his plane and have it remain intact. But it wouldn't be easy. If he was only an inch or two off, the airliner would cartwheel and flip over on the frigid waters of the Hudson. A devastating outcome would ensue.
"I had less than five minutes to get everything right," he recounts. "I had to touch down with the wings exactly level, the nose slightly up, at a descent rate that was survivable, just above our minimum flying speed but not below it. I needed to make all of these things happen simultaneously," he says, reliving that precarious situation. "I saw the river ahead of me, with boats on the south side that could facilitate our rescue. Ninety seconds before hitting the water, I instructed, 'Brace for impact.'"
"Heads Down! Stay Down!"
That command signaled to flight attendants Doreen Welsh, Donna Dent, and Sheila Dail the seriousness of the situation. "Through the cockpit door, I heard the flight attendants shouting their commands, chanting in unison over and over. 'Brace, brace! Heads down! Stay down!' I felt very comforted by that. I knew immediately they were on the same page, and if I could land the airplane they could get the passengers out safely. I was sure I could do it," enthused Sullenberger.
The Right Man for the Job
Many believe there couldn't have been a better man for the job. Sullenberger, who holds two master's degrees, graduated from the United States Air Force Academy on June 6, 1973, and was named "Outstanding Cadet in Airmanship." He trained to become a fighter pilot but was never in combat, as his career coincided with the United States at peace.
"The fact that I have spent a lifetime always trying to learn, trying to grow both professionally and personally, trying to know the why as well as the how, that I was naturally curious and I always tried to make the next flight better than the previous one, helped. Just paying attention and caring as much as I did for 40 years made all the difference," he says in the calm demeanor that defines him. His father, a dentist and World War II veteran, ingrained in him to always be prepared for the worst and that a commander is responsible for everyone in his care.
Sullenberger touched down the plane, and it slid along the Hudson at 145 miles an hour before coming to a stop, river water splashing over the cockpit windows. He opened the cockpit door and bellowed, "Evacuate."
Once the plane emptied he walked down the center aisle, shouting, "Is anyone there? Come forward!" He took that same walk a second time, making sure no one was left behind. This time the water in the back of the plane was so high he had to walk on the seats on his way back. By the time he stepped onto a raft, boats had surrounded the airplane. Fourteen boats assisted in the rescue, the first one reaching the airplane in just under four minutes.
Physically, Sullenberger may have been okay, but mentally, he was consumed with worry about the well-being of his passengers. Some were ferried to the New Jersey side of the river and others to New York, and he anxiously awaited confirmation that everyone was okay. It took more than four hours for him to receive word that all passengers were safe.
"I felt the most intense feeling of relief I'd ever felt in my life. It was like the weight of the universe had been lifted off of my heart," he divulges. All would be returning to their families, and for that, Sullenberger says he will be forever grateful. "If even one person had not survived, I couldn't have celebrated any of this. Success for me meant a complete success or none at all," he declares.
A month after the miracle, Sullenberger as well as the rest of the crew met with dozens of Flight 1549 passengers and their families at a reunion in Charlotte. "Thank you for not making me a widow," one woman cried to Sullenberger. Another thanked him for letting her three-year-old son have his father.
It was then that Sullenberger realized the true scope of what he had accomplished. "One hundred fifty-five is a number, but when you put faces to it, it's not just 155 faces. There are so many others: wives, daughters, sons, fathers, mothers, brothers. It gets to be a pretty big number quickly."
Although most of the attention has been directed at Sullenberger, he emphasizes that this was a team effort. "I've become the public face of this event and have received more attention than the rest of my crew rightly or wrongly in spite of my best efforts," he says self-effacingly. "This was a group effort that includes the passengers themselves, who behaved admirably. The ferries, the first responders, the rescue workers…thank you seems totally inadequate. I have a debt of gratitude that I fear I may never be able to repay." Every step of the way, he shares the praise with his crew.
The images of the passengers standing on the plane's wings, as if they were walking on water, gave many hope. Immediately, Sullenberger was hailed a hero, not a title he initially embraced. Just an ordinary man doing his job, he points out. But as the accolades flooded his home, he realized people needed to grasp onto a story with a happy ending, and he let them.
"This happened during a time when the world was in crisis, as a financial meltdown was underway and people were worried. They wanted a reason to feel hopeful again. This was a life-affirming event," Sullenberger says of the landing that attracted worldwide attention.
He jokes about achieving Santa Claus status. Letters from around the world flood his mailbox, even those addressed to "Hero Pilot USA" or "US Air Captain, California." The letters are awe-inspiring.
One of his favorite letters reads, "Yesterday I received a voicemail from my 84-year-old father, who lives on the 30th floor of a building with river views of Manhattan. Had you not been so skilled, my father and others like him, in their sky-high buildings, could have perished along with your passengers. As a Holocaust survivor, my father taught me that to save a life is to save the world, as you never know what the person you saved or his or her progeny might contribute to the peace and healing of the world. Bless you Captain Sullenberger, New York Loves You."
In the time since the incident, Sullenberger has become a highly sought-after corporate speaker and, along with his first officer on that fateful flight, Jeffrey Skiles, a public advocate for the piloting profession and airline safety.
He has testified before Congress, speaking about the landing as well as broader issues affecting airline crews. "September 11, bankruptcies, fluctuating fuel prices, mergers, loss of pensions, and revolving door management teams who have used airline employees as an ATM have left the people who work for airlines in the United States with extreme economic difficulties," he testified. "I am worried that the airline piloting profession will not be able to continue to attract the best and the brightest. The current experience and skills of our country's professional airline pilots come from investments made years ago in aviation. The bottom line is that the single most important piece of safety equipment is an experienced, well-trained pilot."
A recent success he celebrates is the Aviation Safety Bill that the House approved in July. The bill requires all pilots that fly for a passenger-carrying airline to have an Air Transport Pilot certificate, effectively raising the number of flying hours an entry-level pilot must have, from the current 250 hours to 1,500.
After 9/11, with the airline industry ailing, Sullenberger was one of many pilots who lost 40 percent of his salary. To add insult to injury, the US Airways pension he thought he could count on was terminated in 2004. Trying to supplement his income, he founded Safety Reliability Methods, a consulting company designed to help those in other occupations benefit from the airline industry's tactical and strategic approaches to safety. The company encourages others to establish initiatives that mirror the extensive checklists pilots follow.
"Raise the fares," Sullenberger insists when asked what will improve the airline industry. "This will make all the airlines more profitable, and a more profitable company is more likely to make the investments necessary in things and people to keep making aviation safer."
Sullenberger retired from US Airways in March, after 30 years, but continues to fly recreationally. Along with First Officer Skiles, he is a co-chairman of the EAA Young Eagles Program that has provided inspirational and educational flight experiences for 1.5 million people thanks to the volunteer efforts of EAA member pilots.
He is trying to make a difference not only in the airline industry, but in causes that are important to him, including St. Jude's Children Research Hospital in Memphis, TN, and Guide Dogs for the Blind. "I'm trying to make as much good come out of this as possible," Sullenberger promises.
His book, Highest Duty: My Search for What Really Matters, reveals the important lessons he learned from childhood, his military service, and as a commercial pilot. It reminds the reader that life's challenges can be easily overcome if one is properly prepared. By living this mantra, Sullenberger saved the lives of 155 people.
Originally published Nov. 1, 2010