Chesley Sullenberger had been a commercial pilot for 29 years before a plane he was flying out of LaGuardia Airport struck a flock of geese, damaging the plane's engines. He turned the aircraft around and ditched it in the Hudson River, saving all 155 people aboard and becoming a national hero and instant celebrity. He retired a year later, wrote his memoirs and concentrated on a new career as an international speaker on airline safety.
Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger was born in Denison, Texas on January 23, 1951. He enrolled in the U.S. Air Force Academy in 1969, and graduated as an officer in 1973 with a Bachelor of Science degree. (He also holds master's degrees from Purdue University and the University of Northern Colorado.)
Sullenberger served as a fighter pilot for the U.S. Air Force from 1973 to 1980, flying Vietnam-era F-4 Phantom II jets. He was a flight leader and a training officer and attained the rank of captain while building up experience overseas and at Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada. A top pilot, Sullenberger was the mission commander for Red Flag exercises, in which pilots receive advanced aerial combat training. He was also a member of an aircraft accident investigation board.
In 1980, Sullenberger joined Pacific Southwest Airlines as a commercial pilot. (Pacific Southwest was acquired in 1988 by what would become US Airways.) Over his years as a professional pilot, Sullenberger was an instructor, as well as an Air Line Pilots Association safety chairman and accident investigator. He also participated in several U.S. Air Force and National Transportation Safety Board accident investigations.
Crash on the Hudson
Sullenberger's years of airline safety instruction and study paid off on January 15, 2009, when the US Airways plane he was piloting struck a large flock of Canada geese during liftoff from New York's LaGuardia Airport. Both engines were damaged, and suddenly neither was providing any thrust. With air traffic control, Sullenberger discussed his options: either return to LaGuardia or land at Teterboro Airport in New Jersey. Sullenberger quickly deemed the situation too dire for the plane to stay in the air long enough for either plan to be successful, so he decided that ditching (performing an emergency water landing) the jet in the Hudson River was the best option.
He announced over the intercom, "Brace for impact," and took the plane down onto the water's surface. The maneuver was a success, and all 155 people onboard flight 1549 survived, and all but a few uninjured. The crew evacuated the passengers; Captain Sullenberger left the plane last.
In the aftermath of the miraculous emergency landing, Sullenberger, an instant hero and international celebrity, received calls of thanks from President George W. Bush and president-elect Barack Obama. He was an honored guest at President Barack Obama's inauguration, and both the U.S. Senate and the House of Representatives passed resolutions praising Sullenberger and his crew.
Chesley Sullenberger retired a year later, after 30 years as a commercial pilot. He then concentrated on running his safety consulting business, Safety Reliability Methods, Inc., which he founded in 2007, and on speaking in the United States and abroad about flight safety issues. In 2009, HarperCollins published Sullenberger's memoir, Highest Duty: My Search for What Really Matters. Sully, a movie about Sullenberger and his heroics on the Hudson River, directed by Clint Eastwood and starring Tom Hanks in the title role, was released in September 2016.
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