For millions, he will forever be remembered for performing “The Miracle on the Hudson.”
January 15, 2009 - US Airways Flight 1549 had just taken off from New York’s LaGuardia Airport headed to Charlotte, NC. It didn’t make it there. Instead, the plane was safely ditched into the freezing river that separates New York from New Jersey.
For the first 100 seconds of the flight, it was just another mundane trip for Captain Chesley Sullenberger, who had flown for more than 42 years and logged 20,000 hours in the air.
But then he saw the birds; a flock of Canada geese, each weighing about 10 or 12 pounds, with a wingspan stretching from four to six feet.
As the plane was making its ascent, the birds were sucked into the plane’s engines, forcing the captain to make an emergency landing. With no airports easily available, he turned the plane, and headed for the Hudson River.
“It felt as if the bottom had fallen out of our world. I could feel my pulse and my blood pressure shoot up, my perceptual feed narrow, because of the stress. But I had the discipline to focus on the task at hand in spite of it.”
“Sully,” as he is now known to millions, knew from the time he was five years old that he wanted to be a pilot. Growing up in the small Texas town of Denison, his family lived under the flight path to the local air force base. He spent a lot of time looking up--and dreaming of the day when he would be able to fly.
In the 1960’s he got his chance. “I learned in a very traditional way. I learned in a way that pilots have been learning to fly for decades. I found an instructor who was a crop duster,” he told “Off the Cuff.”
He can recall in vivid details his early flights. “He had his own grass strip. He often would have just mowed the strip. And so in the summertime, you'd have that aromatic, freshly-cut grass smell. You'd feel the rumble of the wheels over the uneven turf, as you taxied out to takeoff,” he continued. “It was a very simple airplane…no battery, no starter, no electrical system, no lights or radio, just the mechanical flight controls, connected by cables. And it was a wonderful way to learn the fundamental flying skills that I could deeply internalize, and then have immediately accessible to me, if I needed them, even decades later.”
Sullenberger says he’s an “inveterate reader". He was an accomplished musician in high school, and trained as a fighter pilot after his graduation from the Air Force Academy. After only eight years as a commercial airline pilot, he was promoted to captain.
He has a unique vision of what makes a great leader: “It starts by looking in the mirror. It starts by deciding every day, "What is the purpose of my life? What values do I really need to live in authentic ways in everything I do and every choice I make?” He says that's the core, adding, “It means being able to check your ego at the door.”
“People aren't stupid,” he said. “They know when we're really all in this together and when we're not.” And whether they’re in the skies or behind a desk, he says, “Most people want to do well. Most people want the group to succeed when they come to work. But what they need is effective leadership that can create an environment in which they can do their best work. "
While Sully has become the very public face of a team of heroes, he still grapples with what he calls the “H-word.” He says people often tell him how much better they feel just knowing he’s on their flight adding, “I'm not sure why they do. But I'm glad that they do.”
Now an Aviation and Safety Consultant for CBS News, Sullenberger is using his new-found fame to work for charities like St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital and Best Buddies for which he’s very passionate. He’s also working to improve conditions for his fellow pilots and the safety of aviation, his lifetime career and first love.