Sully Talks Safety, Sudden Fame, at ASTA Global Convention
Photo by Robin Amster
RENO, NEVADA — Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger—the former USAir pilot hailed as an American hero—related his dramatic Hudson River emergency landing of Flight 1549 to a hushed audience at the ASTA Global Convention in Reno Wednesday.
The keynote speaker at the convention, Sullenberger decried the fact that of 35 new safety measures recommended by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) following the 2009 event, only six have been approved by the FAA.
And he added he was “disgusted” by the airline industry’s efforts to block new safety regulations lobbied for by families of the victims of the Continental Connection crash in Buffalo, N.Y., that occurred just one month after his own landing, killing 50 people.
Sullenberger, who is now a CBS aviation commentator and the CEO of Safety Reliability Methods, called aviation “a team sport,” He saluted the efforts of air traffic control, First Officer Jeff Skiles, the cabin crew, and first responders who combined with him to save all 155 people on board his Airbus 320 which was struck by a large flock of birds shortly after take-off from New York’s LaGuardia Airport.
After 42 years of flying—including his years as an Air Force fighter pilot—Sullenberger said he wouldn’t have guessed his life would be judged by the 208-second emergency landing on the “featureless water terrain” of the freezing Hudson River on that Jan. 15.
“My first three thoughts were: this can’t be happening, this doesn’t happen to me, and unlike all those other flights, this one would probably not end on a runway with the aircraft undamaged,” Sullenberger said. “And I was okay with that as long as I could solve the problem.”
Sullenberger noted that airline pilots weren’t trained for this kind of situation. “In flight simulators it’s not possible to practice a water landing.”
He forced himself to be calm because “I did not have time to do everything I really needed to do, I chose only the highest priority items,” in finding a means of landing the plane.
There were only three options for landing that were remotely possible, he explained: runway landings at LaGuardia or Teterboro Airport in New Jersey or setting the plane down in the Hudson River.
“It was actually an easy choice to sacrifice the airplane and save lives,” Sullenberger said. “I didn’t waver.”
Following that landing, Sullenberger said First Officer Skiles told him, “You put a $62 million airliner in the river and they call you a hero.”
Sullenberger drew some lessons for the audience relating both to passenger safety and to the kind of professional and personal values he believes everyone should live by.
There’s been a sea change in terms of commercial aviation safety, according to Sullenberger. That’s pretty impressive considering, “We are pushing a tube full of people through the air at seven or eight miles above the earth 20,000 times a day,” he noted.
Yet passengers themselves need to take an active part in ensuring their safety, said Sullenberger.
On Flight 1549, only 12 passengers had read the safety briefing card, he said. The takeaway: There isn’t a flight attendant to take care of every passenger on every flight.
“It’s your responsibility to have the knowledge to save your life; that can be the difference between whether you survive or not.”
Sullenberger also said his parents and grandparents passed on the values of civic duty, service above self, and the sharing life’s sacrifices.
“Many in our society think of these values only as abstractions,” he said. “But they have real meaning in real life with real consequences.
‘Whatever kind of service we choose, as citizens we have a duty to do the hard work. To let facts guide us, not fear.”
Sullenberger acknowledged that he’s become a kind of “defacto spokesperson for my profession” as well as a hero.
“Sully,” a new movie directed by Clint Eastwood and starring Tom Hanks as Sullenberger, is now in theaters.
President Obama who had invited Sullenberger, his family, and his crew and their families to his 2009 inauguration, asked Sullenberger’s wife if all the celebrity had gone to his head.
“’No,’” Sullenberger related his wife saying. “’The world may think he’s a hero, but he still snores.’”
More by Robin Amster
Get Travel Deals and Travel News
Recent Travel Opinions