Four years ago, U.S. Airways Flight 1549 took off from New York’s LaGuardia Airport bound for Charlotte, N.C. The morning was cold and clear, perfect for flying. Seconds into the flight, the Airbus A320 struck a flock of geese causing both engines to fail.
“Hit birds. We lost thrust in both engines. We’re turning back toward LaGuardia,” Capt. Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger radioed air traffic control.
Working quickly, controllers halted departures and offered a runway, but the plane was descending too rapidly. “We’re unstable. We may end up in the Hudson,” Sullenberger responded.
Controllers continued working the problem, suggesting other runway options, according to a flight recording. Sullenberger asked if anything was available in New Jersey, possibly Teterboro. Contacting Teterboro, a controller got clearance for a runway and notified Sullenberger using his “Cactus” call sign. But the situation had changed.
“We can’t do it,” Sullenberger said flatly.
“OK, which runway would you like at Teterboro?”
“We’re gonna be in the Hudson.”
“I’m sorry, say again Cactus?”
At that point, air traffic control lost radar contact with the plane. On the flight recording, a pilot with a different airline can be heard confirming what the controller didn’t seem to want to hear: “I think he said he was going in the Hudson.”
In 42 years flying, Sullenberger had never experienced engine failure. In one of his first interviews, with anchor Katie Couric, he 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 Jan. 15, the balance was sufficient so that I could make a very large withdrawal.”
But he’s been quick to point out that the “positive outcome” that resulted in all lives saved wasn’t solely his doing. He credits the first officer working beside him, air traffic controllers, flight attendants, cooperative passengers and the first responders who came in all sorts of vessels to pluck people off the plane’s wings and out of the freezing water.
Retired since 2010, Sullenberger has written two bestsellers and is working on a third book. The married father of two daughters also serves as an analyst for CBS, an airline industry consultant and air safety advocate. He’s also expanded his focus to healthcare, pushing for medical professionals to take lessons in patient care and safety from the airline industry. And Sullenberger is still regarded as the Hero of the Hudson.
A couple days before our scheduled interview, there’s a reference to him on a reality TV show. One guy calls another a hero for standing up for some principle, and the second guy says, “I’m no hero; that guy who landed the plane on the Hudson is a hero.”
I ask Sullenberger what this is like. I expect him to say he was just doing what he’d trained for, but his response is more complex.
“Most people aren’t faced with sudden life-threatening challenge,” he says. “I know I didn’t expect to be. Part of the good that’s come from this event is that it was a reminder for people. In spite of how troubled the world was in late 2008-early 2009, with the financial meltdown and economic crisis, at a time when many might wonder if people could do the right thing or if human nature was solely about personal interest and greed, a group of people worked together to make sure we had a good outcome. It’s a reminder that courage can be contagious.
“That’s part of the legacy, one of the reasons my family and I feel a responsibility to be the face of this tragedy. We feel a real obligation to treat this story with respect.”
After the crash landing, Sullenberger heard from many people he had worked with who reminded him of incidents he had forgotten. Like the time his aircraft landed late at night and, after everyone disembarked, an elderly passenger remained on board in need of a wheelchair. Sullenberger checked and there was no attendant, so he dashed into the airport, grabbed a wheelchair and helped the passenger disembark himself. “My thought process was simple: I’ve got you here this far, I’m not going to leave you on the plane.”
But it was these little things, his colleagues suggested, that made them confident that if anyone could pull off a water landing on the Hudson, it was Sully.
“My take on that is that our reputations are built one interaction, one person, one day at a time over many years,” Sullenberger tells me. “With every encounter there’s always an opportunity for good. These are choices we make to make a positive difference, or negative one, or not one at all.”