NSC 2012: Captain Sully Sullenberger Talks About the Miracle on the Hudson River

Chesley Sullenberger III is a retired airline pilot and safety expert. Most of us know him as "Captain Sully," the U.S. Airways pilot who successfully made an emergency water landing of a disabled plane on the Hudson River, which has been dubbed the "Miracle on the Hudson."

At the opening ceremony of the National Safety Congress and Expo in Orlando on Oct. 22, former U.S. Airways pilot and safety expert Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger III explained the flight of 1549 on Jan. 15, 2009 was “completely routine and unremarkable” for the first 100 seconds. It’s the next 208 seconds which forever will be burned in our memories. During those 208 seconds, the aircraft piloted by Sullenberger and co-pilot Jeff Skiles ran through a flock of Canadian geese, damaging both engines and causing engine failure.

Air traffic control feverishly worked to clear runways at nearby airports for Flight 1549, letting Sullenberger know where it was safe to land. Until Sullenberger calmly told them, “We’re going to be in the Hudson.”

“In 2009, I never had an engine failure in 42 years in any flight I’d ever flown,” said Sullenberger. “But I was ready.”

Speaking with news anchor Katie Couric after the plane crash, Sullenberger said: “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 January 15, the balance was sufficient so that I could make a very large withdrawa.l”

He was born into a family that valued education and the sharing of ideas. This, said Sullenberger, taught him an important lesson: “Never stop investing in yourself. Never stop learning.”

He said he’s realized that despite how routine air travel has become, airline pilots navigate “tubes of filled with people” at rates speeds near the speed of sound at a distance of six or seven miles above the ground. It’s hardly routine, and while air travel is much safer now than it was when he started out as a pilot, Sullenberger acknowledges that continued vigilance, training and communication is necessary to improve and build the safety culture at airlines.

Although he did not mention it at the National Safety Congress, in the years since he retired as a commercial pilot, Sullenberger has spoken out about cuts to Congress’ proposed budget cuts to the budget of the Federal Aviation Administration, rules to mitigate pilot fatigue, drowsy air traffic controllers and the outsourcing by many airlines of maintenance.  According to Sullenberger, the number of maintenance inspectors has always been too low, and airlines are outsourcing maintenance to others, including to vendors outside of the United States – such as China and Mexico ­– where mechanics are not subject to random drug and alcohol tests and may not be licensed.  

“I never knew in 42 years [of his career as a pilot] that there would be 208 seconds on which my entire career would be judged,” said Sullenberger.

He said a reputation is built “one interaction, one person, one day at a time.” His reputation continues to grow as he spreads his message about safety, integrity and communication to industries outside of the airline industry.

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