US Airways pilot Capt. Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger will go down in aviation history as a hero for one astonishing feat—the moment on Jan. 15, 2009, when the then 57-year-old guided a crippled Airbus A320 with 155 people aboard over the George Washington Bridge and then made a water landing on the Hudson, avoiding a potentially catastrophic crash in a densely populated area and saving the lives of everyone on board. Aside from one passenger who suffered two broken legs, the rest of the plane’s occupants escaped serious injury, according to NBC News.
“If it wasn't for him, I wouldn't be here today,” passenger Mary Berkwits later explained to the New York Times. “He was just wonderful.”
Sullenberger managed to overcome his initial reaction to the failure of both of his engines—which he later described as "the worst sickening, pit-of-your-stomach, falling-through-the-floor feeling'' he had ever experienced—and summon the presence of mind, calm resolve and superlative skill to avoid a tragedy. But his ability to perform under such frightening pressure wasn't just borne of necessity. The qualities that enabled Sullenberger to become a hero were forged through decades of rigorous training and experience, in both military and civilian aviation.
Sullenberger grew up in Denison,TX, a town of 23,000 near the Oklahoma border, the son of a dentist and an elementary school teacher. As his sister explained to the New York Times in 2009, even as a boy, Sullenberger stood out because of his meticulousness in painting the tiniest parts on the model aircraft carriers he built as a hobby. As a high school student, he reportedly became fascinated with flying after watching jets from a now-defunct Air Force base fly over his home. He took flying lessons and earned a pilot’s license while he was still a teenager.
After graduating near the top of his high school class, Sullenberger was accepted into the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, CO, where he excelled from the start. He was selected as one of about a dozen freshmen to train to fly gliders—a skill that may have come in handy decades later when his engines failed—and by the end of the year had been chosen as an instructor pilot. When he graduated in 1973 with a bachelor’s degree in psychology, he earned the Outstanding Cadet in Airmanship Award, given to the top pilot in each graduating class.
Sullenberger went on to serve in the Air Force, flying F-4 Phantom fighter jets and serving as a flight leader and training officer at posts in Europe and the Pacific, and at Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada, where his expertise was so respected that he commanded advanced aerial combat training exercises.
Sullenberger left the Air Force in 1980 and became a pilot for Pacific Southwest Airlines, which was later acquired by US Airways. In his 30 years in the airline industry, Sullenberger not only logged more than 20,000 hours in the air as a pilot, but also worked with federal aviation officials to investigate crashes and improve training and methods for evacuating aircraft in emergencies.
In addition to his work at the airline, Sullenberger found time to found a consulting company, Safety Reliability Methods, Inc., which provides safety improvement strategies, emergency management and performance monitoring for the aviation industry. Additionally, Sullenberger served as a safety chairman of the Air Line Pilots Association, a professional group. He also found time to earn two master’s degrees, one in industrial psychology from Purdue University and the other in public administration from the University of Northern Colorado.
After Sullenberger’s miraculous landing on the Hudson, he quickly became a celebrity, and was invited by then President-elect Barack Obama to be a guest at his inauguration. In 2010, Sullenberger retired from US Airways, to focus on his company and give speeches about flight safety issues. HarperCollins published his memoir, entitled Highest Duty: My Search for What Really Matters.
Sullenberger, his wife and two daughters live in Danville, CA.