Although the 2009 takeoff and emergency landing of US Airways Flight 1549 took all of six minutes, behind that “Miracle on the Hudson” was 20,000 hours of flight time clocked in by Cap. Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger.
Since he was 5 years old, Sullenberger knew that he wanted to be a pilot. As he noted in his book,“Highest Duty,” he was awed by the sounds of jet fighters zooming over his childhood home, which was just nine miles from an Air Force base in Texas. “It fed my wanderlust,” he wrote.
By age 11 he had his first plane ride and was devouring all the literature he could about planes. By 16 he convinced his parents to let him take flight lessons, an easy task since they saw his passion for it. His flight logbook dates back to these days in 1967.
It only took a little over seven hours for his teacher, a crop-dusting pilot, to gain enough confidence to let Sullenberger fly solo in an Aeronca 7DC. He was a natural. In a 2012 interview with Conde Nast Traveler, Sullenberger said that a key influence in his life was the environment he grew up in, “in which education was valued, ideas were important, and striving for excellence was expected.” That dedication led him to receive the Outstanding Cadet in Airmanship Award when he was in the U.S. Air Force Academy. He later advanced to become a flight leader and captain in the Air Force.
Sullenberger is the first to note that his experience was a key factor in making sure all 155 passengers and crew made a safe landing on Jan. 15, 2009. After its takeoff from LaGuardia Airport, a flock of geese struck the plane’s engines, disabling both.
The captain had less than three minutes to decide whether to return to LaGuardia, head toward Teterboro Airport in New Jersey or land in the Hudson. He chose the risky watery landing and thankfully, first responders were able to immediately rush to the scene to rescue everyone from the frigid river.
The last to leave was Sullenberger, who went back up and down the aisles to make sure everyone was accounted for.
“One way of looking at this might be that for 42 years, I’ve been making small, regular deposits in this bank of experience, education and training. And on Jan. 15 the balance was sufficient so that I could make a very large withdrawal,” he told CBS News in 2009.
Coincidentally, inside the luggage that Sullenberger had left on board was a book entitled “Just Culture: Balancing Safety and Accountability.” It was a library book past due that Sullenberger promised to pay. When the captain and his crew were presented with the keys to the city, Mayor Bloomberg also gave him a replacement copy of that book.
Sullenberger retired in 2010 after 30 years of service as a pilot. He continues to advocate for aviation safety.