The “Miracle on the Hudson” was no miracle; it was the culmination of a 35-year military and airline flying career
Captain Chesley Sullenberger was the right person, in the right place, at the right time. His entire flying career had prepared him for the unimaginable crisis he and copilot Jeff Skiles faced on January 15, 2009, when their Airbus A320 lost both engines after striking a flock of geese soon after takeoff from New York’s LaGuardia Airport. The US Airways pilots were at about 3,000 feet over one of the world’s most densely populated cities, flying what was essentially a 75-ton glider with no runway within reach. In a testament to his skill and calm professionalism, Sullenberger managed to safely ditch the stricken A320 in the Hudson River, saving all 155 aboard.
“Sully” Sullenberger, as he refers to himself, graciously agreed to share with Aviation History’s readers recollections of his military and airline career, the events of that fateful day seven years ago and his views on the challenges the airline industry faces today. He also talked about Sully, the Clint Eastwood–directed motion picture based on Sullenberger’s bestseller Highest Duty, starring Tom Hanks and set to be released on September 9.
Tell us a little bit about how you got into flying.
By the time I was 5 I knew I wanted to fly airplanes, and I never considered anything else; I didn’t have a plan B. So I was fascinated by airplanes, built my first model at probably age 5½ or 6. I had learned to fly in high school—typical pattern, soloed as soon as I could, at minimum age, at 16; got my private pilot’s certificate at the minimum age, 17; commercial pilot’s certificate at the minimum age, 18. By the time I entered the Air Force Academy, I had a couple hundred hours of flying time. I quickly became a flight instructor—by the time I was 20 I was a flight instructor in airplanes and in gliders—and in the four years I was at the Air Force Academy I flew a thousand hours, which I’m told is quite remarkable; I’m not sure it has been done since. Mostly in instruction given to other cadets, teaching them to fly airplanes and gliders on my weekends and after school. And then I went to graduate school at Purdue, then Air Force pilot training and became a fighter pilot. So it’s been something that’s been a lifelong passion and continues to be so.
You had kind of a mentor in L.T. Cook. Sounded like he was the right person for you at the time.
He was a cropduster that I was introduced to, and if he liked the look of you he’d take you on as a student. He did, he had his own grass strip east of Sherman, Texas. He had a couple of airplanes, one he sprayed with—a Super Cub—and then he had this Aeronca 7DC that he taught me to fly in. I soloed pretty quickly. Of course flying was a little bit simpler then. I think I had a little over 7½ hours when I soloed. It was a great way to learn deeply internalized, well-learned fundamental skills that would last a lifetime and be accessible even decades later, even though I’d been flying jets for a long time.
You were named the outstanding cadet in airmanship at the Air Force Academy. To what do you attribute that honor?
Well, first of all I did so much of it, both as an instructor in the glider program and in the aero club in powered airplanes. I also did parachuting, and I think just the fact I’d done so much and I had such a passion for it, it sort of set me apart from my contemporaries. That’s really it; it’s not that I was the best in every way, it’s just I had approached it with such passion and done so much of it—and been noticed.
You went on to fly F-4s in Britain and at Nellis Air Force Base. What did you think of the Phantom?
It was an older airplane even then, a workhorse of the Vietnam era, and of course my active service was toward the end of the Vietnam War. I never actually went to Vietnam, never saw combat, and then much of the rest of my active duty service was during the Cold War. Flying a jet fighter is the pinnacle of tactical military aviation. It’s like driving a Formula One racer on steroids—in three dimensions, not just two. It’s thrilling, it’s demanding. Unless you’re someone who’s done it, words fail me in describing to you what it’s like and what it takes, except to say that it’s the best flying I’ve ever done.
You need to be on at all times.
Yeah, especially as we were flying in formation at ultra low levels while I was at Nellis over the desert ranges, 100 feet above the ground at 600 knots. You’re covering a nautical mile every six seconds, you’re traveling just over 1,012 feet per second.
How do you think your Air Force training prepared you for Flight 1549?
I think anyone who has been a military aviator brings to the table a certain discipline, a certain diligence. It’s an attitude with which we approach the job, it’s a profession, it’s a calling. And it’s something that if you answer that calling, it leads one to be a continuous lifelong learner, to constantly be striving for excellence to try to always make the next flight better than the previous one. In our military debriefings after every flight, we would not hold back, and in brutally honest discussions we would hold each other, leaders and followers alike, accountable to the same high professional standards. We talked about what worked and what didn’t, and why and what we could do to make it better next time. So it’s that sort of rigor that I think military aviators bring to any flying they do. It’s a professional attitude, to the nth degree. And you understand clearly, you’ve done your homework, there are no major gaps in your knowledge. You understand high-altitude aerodynamics, high-altitude physiology, you understand the mechanics of all the systems of the airplane, you leave no stone unturned, and you know not just what and how to do things, but you know why we must do them. And I think that’s certainly part of our National Transportation Safety Board’s formal lessons-learned process also when they investigate major transportation accidents. Pilots of my generation can quote you chapter and verse of the last half century of seminal accidents—where they occurred, why, and what we learned from them and how that knowledge has informed not only our airplane designs but our policies, our procedures and our training.
Walk us through the decision-making process you went through after you struck that flock of geese and lost both engines. What were your options and why did you choose to ditch in the Hudson?
Well, first I should set the stage for this and say that at this point it had been 29 years since I had been a fighter pilot. For 29 years I’d worked in this airline environment where we worked so hard to plan and anticipate and have alternatives for every course of action. We worked very hard never to be surprised by anything, to keep it smooth and routine, and we’d do a very good job of that. And very suddenly, just 100 seconds after takeoff, we encountered this flock of birds that were just visible a few seconds before we struck them. But at that point we were traveling 316 feet per second, so I saw them probably three football field lengths ahead of us, but clearly not enough time and distance to maneuver a large, fast jet airliner away from them. And so within a few seconds we had encountered an ultimate challenge of a lifetime. I’d never before been so challenged in an airplane. And within a few seconds of that the engines had been damaged and had failed, and it was obvious from the very beginning that this was going to be unlike every other flight I’d had for 42 years and 20,000 hours in the air. And the startle effect, the shock of this, was intense, and our bodies reacted in a normal human physiological way. I was aware that had happened—my pulse shooting up, my blood pressure spiking, my perceptual field narrowing because of the sudden, life-threatening stress. But I did three things. I was able to force calm on myself, which isn’t really calm, it’s just having the discipline that I talked about to be able to compartmentalize and focus clearly on the task at hand in spite of the stress. Second, even though we’d never trained for this, and in fact in our airline flight simulators you cannot train for water landings—they aren’t programmed for it; the only training we’d ever gotten was a theoretical classroom discussion—I was able to take a lifetime of experience and training and impose that paradigm on this situation, thereby making it then one I knew how to solve. And finally, because of the extreme workload and time pressure, I knew I didn’t have time to do everything I needed to do, but because I could set priorities, because I understood not just the what and how of my profession but the why, because I knew my airplane so intimately—I’d been on the airplane almost 5,000 hours, 6½ years—I could set clear priorities even in this situation we’d never trained for. And so I chose to do only the highest priority items but do them very, very well, and then I had the discipline to ignore everything I did not have time to do as being only potential distractions. I knew from having visited and flown into New York many times that we only had three options. There were only two runways that were even possibly close enough for us to be able to use our minimum altitude and glide to: LaGuardia, from which we had departed but at that point were heading away from, and Teterboro across the river in New Jersey. It turned out, and the NTSB ultimately validated this in a flight simulator study at the Airbus factory in France, that, seeing this for the first time as we were, and including reaction time, there was not altitude to make it back to any runway. And that I knew intuitively up front, and I suspected we were going to end up in the river, but I had to consider trying to make it to a runway first. I chose the third option, the only remaining viable option, which was the Hudson—the only place in the entire metropolitan area of New York, one of the most densely populated areas on the planet, that was long enough, wide enough and smooth enough to attempt landing an airliner. So I quickly set priorities, I load shed—pared down this problem to its essential elements—did the few things that had to be done, did them very well and I was willing to goal sacrifice. I knew that the highest priority was to save lives, and I was more than willing to give up trying to save the airplane very early on in order to do that. And that was an easy choice for me to make, although as [First Officer] Jeff Skiles would tell me later, “You put a $62 million airliner in the river and they call you a hero. Is this a great country, or what?” But the options were so clear. Ultimately we had the advantage of a relative lack of ambiguity. I saw the birds, we heard and felt them going into the engines. We didn’t have to spend a lot of time saying what just happened, and instead immediately started analyzing this problem. We were able to go very quickly into how do we solve it. That saved a lot of time, when we only had, as it turned out from the time we hit the birds and the thrust loss until we had landed, 208 seconds, just under 3½ minutes. So we quickly began to work together. And it’s also important to note that Jeff Skiles, like I do, has 20,000 hours of flying time. He had been a captain on the 737, a different type of airplane, before. So we were able to collaborate wordlessly, when there wasn’t time to have a discussion about this, there wasn’t time for me to direct his every action. I had to rely upon him immediately and intuitively knowing what was happening and knowing what he should do to help me, because I didn’t have time to tell him to do that. Had he been less experienced, we couldn’t have had the same outcome, and that’s why experience is so important, because you never know throughout an entire career when or even if you’re going to face such a challenge or what it will be. What’s so remarkable about this, I think, is the fact that under these extreme conditions of crisis we got so much so right so quickly, and every choice that we made at every juncture the NTSB later verified was the one that led to the best outcome.
You mention in your book the Airbus A320’s various safety systems—did that in your mind help or hinder, or both, your ability to ditch in the Hudson, because I know specifically you mention about not being able to pull the nose up quite as far as you might have wanted to?
The answer is both. Let me back up a little bit. Within two seconds of the bird strike and thrust loss, we know from the cockpit voice recorder and from the flight data recorder, I had taken by memory the first two remedial actions that would help us the most, that we would later get to on the checklist over a minute later, over a third of the way through the remaining flight time, and that was to turn on the engine ignition so the engines would recover if they could (it turned out they were irreparably damaged), and I started the airplane’s auxiliary power unit, the APU, to provide a backup source of electrical power. Since this is a fly-by-wire airplane and there’s no longer a direct mechanical connection with the flight controls, instead you have electrical impulses that are fed through computers that then move actuators. So I knew how important it was to have uninterrupted electrical power, and we never lost electrical power. By the time the left engine rpm decayed enough that it was no longer powering its own generator, the APU generator was online. So we stayed in normal law—all the flight envelope protections were intact. That helped provide essentially guardrails to prevent us from exceeding certain extremes in terms of speed or attitude, for example. So I had that as an ace in the hole. It turns out we didn’t need those protections; we never got to the limits at which they would have protected us from ourselves. At the very end of the flight, as you note, I had not yet achieved the maximum aerodynamic performance of the wing—we had not yet gotten to what we call alpha max—and I was during the landing pulling the stick further aft, further aft, trying to maximize the performance of the wing to get to the nose-high attitude we needed for entry into the water, to get to the slowest rate of descent that we could. And it turned out we discovered later—the investigators discovered by studying the data from the digital flight data recorder—that in the last four seconds of the flight, a little-known software feature of the fly-by-wire system known only to a few software engineers at Airbus, but to no airline pilots and no airline operators, prevented me from achieving that last little bit of performance because of something called the phugoid mode. And had that not inhibited our performance, had that not, as the NTSB in the report euphemistically said, “attenuated” my inputs—nose-up command—we wouldn’t have hit quite so hard, we wouldn’t have had as much damage and [Flight Attendant] Doreen Welsh might not have been injured in the back when a piece of structure came up through the floor, and the airplane might have floated a little bit higher in the water and a little bit longer. So it’s a mixed blessing: It prevented us from making egregious errors, but we didn’t anyway, and at the very end it prevented us from getting the nose up quite as much as we theoretically should have been able to.
How do you think it might have been different if you were, say, flying a Boeing airliner?
Except for that one flight control mode, I don’t think it would have mattered. As long as I was flying an airplane that was similarly configured, in other words the overall geometric structure of the airplane was similar, with low-slung engines in about the same position, I think we would have had a similar outcome.
To what do you attribute the public fascination with your successful ditching?
I think just the way it happened, when it happened at the time in the world’s history, during the ’08-’09 financial meltdown when it seemed as if everything was going wrong and no one could do anything right. It had affected so many people so negatively that some people had begun to question human nature and wonder if it was really mostly about self-interest and greed. And then this group of people all came together, rose to the occasion and in concert made it their mission in life to see that good was done and that lives were saved. I think at a time when we all needed it, it gave people hope, it reassured us that there was still this human potential for good in each of us. And I think one of the biggest surprises for all of us directly involved is that this story did not fade away at the end of the news cycle like most stories do, because of the way it happened when it happened and the way that it continues to touch and inspire people, even people not associated with this flight. And so I feel a special responsibility to this story to treat it with the respect that I feel for it, because of the way it touches people.
And the people of New York, too, were part of that whole equation.
Absolutely. So as a result of this, both our first officer Jeff Skiles and I feel an obligation to use this notoriety for good, to use this bully pulpit to improve the safety of the traveling public, to improve the state of the piloting profession. Not to do so would be a dereliction of duty in our minds, because we feel like we owe it to our colleagues still working at all the airlines to do that. Since we’ve been chosen temporarily by fate as the de facto spokespersons for the profession, we don’t want to let them down.
Tell us a little bit about what you’ve been up to since your 2009 book.
A lot. People know that a year after the famous flight I retired after just over 30 years from the airlines, but they don’t always know all the things I’ve done, that I really didn’t retire; I just traded that one profession for several others. As an author I wrote a second book, Making a Difference: Stories of Vision and Courage From America’s Leaders, that I’m very happy with. I profile about a dozen people, and when I chose people whom I admired to profile as exemplars of leadership, I neither asked nor considered their political affiliation, but instead I chose people who had exhibited moral courage, and by doing the right thing at the right time for the right reasons, they had made a difference in people’s lives. And so that’s something I’ve been passionate about my whole life, and I was very fortunate to have so many outstanding Americans participate in this story and come up with answers to all the questions I had about leadership—like are leaders born or made, how important is culture, how do you manage your own ego and prevent it from getting in your way? So that was a real labor of love, and that came out in 2012. I’ve been doing a lot of speeches around the country and in fact around the world. I’ve talked to audiences, as many as 15,000 people, from Australia to Switzerland and everywhere in between. And as I’ve traveled the world and met important people, including some world leaders, I’ve learned a lot about different audiences, and I work very hard to do that every time I speak to them—audiences as diverse as nuclear power operators to financial risk managers to medical professionals. I’ve done a lot of talking to medical audiences about how we’ve made aviation so safe and the ways that we can transfer that knowledge to medicine to make patient care safer. I’ve also been a consultant to industry, again on applying aviation-type methods to chemical and other industries. And I’ve also been an advocate for the safety of the traveling public; I’ve used this notoriety for good to go to Capitol Hill. I testified just a year ago before the House and the Senate aviation subcommittees. I was in Washington, D.C., just last month to try to improve aviation safety and try to include in the FAA reauthorization bill measures that would make flying safer for everybody. So that’s a big focus of mine. So I’ve been very busy in trying to say that even though I had a 40-year career in flying—even before the famous flight, and then there was the famous flight, which was a major contribution to safety—I’m trying to keep on working so that it may be that if I’m fortunate and work hard enough, my greatest contributions still lie ahead.
What do you think are the main challenges the airline industry faces today?
I think the main challenge is to find ways to keep making air travel safer. We’ve made huge strides, particularly in the advanced Western world and especially in the United States in the last decade. In fact, the last passenger fatality on a large U.S. jetliner in the U.S. was 15 years ago, in November 2001. That’s not true at the regionals, although the last regional airline accident now has been awhile—the February 2009 crash of Continental Connection–Colgan Air 3407 in Buffalo. It’s been largely due to the efforts of the victims’ families of the Buffalo crash, because of their ardent support for safety measures, that the Congress in 2010 really improved some things, including pilot experience minimums that were really very low before and now are more reasonable. So there’s still a lot of pressure, especially within the regional industry, to do things that are just good enough, to do things that are less costly, that are more expedient, that are easier. And we have to keep reminding everyone—the airlines, the FAA and others—that when we go up in an airliner together, what we’re really doing, in spite of how routine and safe it seems, is we’re pushing a tube filled with people through the upper atmosphere, 7 or 8 miles above the earth, at 80 percent of the speed of sound, in a hostile environment with outside air pressure one-quarter that at the surface and outside temperatures to minus 70, and we must return it safely to the surface every time. We make it look easy, but it’s not. So we can’t take our eye off the ball. We have to use big data, we have to use all kinds of safety reporting and auditing systems to look for risks and mitigate them before they can lead to a bad outcome. And we need to make sure that as we transition from my generation of pilots to the next generations that they have that same diligence, that same discipline, that same understanding that just good enough isn’t, and that they have learned and internalized the lessons of historic accidents to remember why it’s important that we do all the things we do to keep our passengers safe on every flight on every day.
What is your opinion of the airline pilot shortage, and why do you think fewer youngsters are interested in learning to fly?
Well, all of us choose our life path based upon not only our passion but its ability to be a viable, sustainable path for ourselves and eventually for our families. Your passion only carries you so far. At some point all of us are going to want to be able to have the means to buy a car, to get married, to buy a house—to have a path that makes economic sense for us. And if the entry-level wages and working conditions and benefits of some of these small regional airlines are not sufficient to do that, of course they’re not going to attract experienced applicants in the numbers they would like. There isn’t currently a shortage of pilots in this country, but there is a shortage of pilots willing to work for starvation, food-stamp-level wages at some of the smallest carriers that have a rightly deserved reputation for being not good places to work. And so I think the industry as a whole needs to look at this broken economic model that some of the regional airlines continue to try to use, and some of the large major carriers have helped to create because they have created a system in which the smaller regionals compete on the basis of cost to be their regional affiliate. In other words, the large major carriers often choose the lowest bidder to be their affiliate in a region, and so I think they’ve helped to create the problem and they have a responsibility in helping to fix it.
How about the increasing reliance on automation—do you think there’s been an erosion in airline piloting skills?
I not only think that, but studies have indicated that. And it’s even worse than that. There have been several studies that have shown that not only has overreliance on automation given pilots fewer opportunities to manually practice flying skills, and that their flying skills have somewhat eroded because of that, but even worse, these studies have found that being an observer, a monitor of automated systems flying the airplane during large portions of the flight, has eroded the pilots’ ability to be mentally engaged, keep track of what’s happening with the airplane and respond quickly enough and effectively enough when they need to intervene. So it’s sapped their flying skills, it’s sapped the confidence they have in their manual flying skills, and it’s slowed their willingness and their ability to quickly and effectively intervene when they must exercise their flying skills, and instead keep on trying to use or fix the automation. So this lack of ability to quickly analyze and figure out what’s going on because of this mentally taking a step back and not being as actively mentally engaged with the whole process throughout the flight is what troubles me even more than the lack of or the diminution of manual flying skills. But they go hand in hand. And so we need to find better ways to keep pilots sharp, to keep them engaged in every aspect of the flight. And it may mean that we need to rethink the design of our cockpits to give pilots a more active role, and have the automation do more of the monitoring instead of the reverse, because humans are not inherently good at monitoring.
A lot of people consider you a hero, and in your book you said you’re not comfortable with that. How do you feel about that now?
Well, I’ve spent years coming to terms with that. And I’ve gotten a greater appreciation for people’s need to feel that way. And I take it as a real responsibility for me to be the public face of this event, and to receive people’s thanks because they have a need to give it. And I want to honor that, but at the same time I know that while we were doing our jobs that day, we did our jobs exceptionally well, probably better than could have been expected under the circumstances.
Sully: The Movie
When did you learn that they wanted to make a movie from your book, and what was your reaction?
Well it was in 2010 that I was approached by a producer who optioned the dramatic rights to my first book, Highest Duty: My Search for What Really Matters, and she hired a screenwriter and came up with a script. And then it had not found a home until early May 2015, when the script was read by Clint Eastwood and he loved it. He immediately contacted Warner Bros, and the train left the station and has been hurtling down the tracks ever since. He actually came to the house last May , and then once some of the casting decisions were made Tom Hanks came to the house last summer. Principal photography began in New York in late September, and it was all completed by late November or early December. And of course it’s in post-production now and it will be released in theaters in the U.S. on September 9. So the story has found a good home, it’s in good hands—veteran filmmakers and great storytellers. And of course Tom Hanks is our “everyman,” he’s played a lot of real people before, including people I’ve met, like Captain James Lovell of Apollo 13, so we’re looking forward to it.
How does it feel to have America’s everyman actor playing you?
Well, Jimmy Stewart wasn’t available [laughter]. I think it’s a great choice.
What’s the nature of your involvement?
I’ve had a small role as a consultant on the film, which I’m very glad, because, I mean, it’s my life and the life of my family and the lives of the people on our flight. So this obviously matters to me. And I’m really impressed with the way that they’re handling it. The few times my wife and I had a chance to visit on the set during filming, it seemed like everybody in the cast and crew, and there were sometimes hundreds of people there, treated this with the kind of respect that I really was impressed by.
What’s it been like working with a Hollywood legend like Clint Eastwood? It must be a privilege.
It is. Class act, very dedicated, been doing this a long time. Very successful coming off the heels just a year ago with American Sniper. And he’s got a well-earned reputation for being very efficient and getting it done quickly, on time and under budget. And taking good care of the story.