WESTVILLE — The pilot who 10 years ago successfully landed an airplane in the Hudson River adjacent to New York City, after striking a flock of birds and losing engine power, credits teamwork and a commitment to excellence for saving the lives of all 150 passengers and five crew members.
Captain Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger told some 700 people attending the Sinai Forum last week at Purdue University Northwest that a lifetime of preparation was responsible for the barely three minutes of decisive action that propelled him to international renown.
"Throughout my flying career, as we've gradually made aviation so routine and so now ultra-safe, I reminded myself to remain vigilant and avoid complacency," Sullenberger said. "Because even after four decades of flying, I never knew on any given day when, or even if, I might one day face my ultimate challenge. As I would say now, I never knew on which 208 seconds my entire life would be judged."
Sullenberger said in the moments after the Canadian geese struck his engines shortly after takeoff from LaGuardia Airport on Jan. 15, 2009, he doubted it really was happening, questioned how it could be happening to him, and recognized US Airways Flight 1549 probably wasn't going to end on a runway.
But despite his racing heart, Sullenberger said he forced himself to be calm and work the problem, focusing on the most important need — safely landing the plane — and doing it well, while ignoring all the other alarms and warnings he couldn't spare time to do anything about.
"We never trained for this. But because I had always had planned to be the most complete pilot I could be, just as I try to be the best husband and father I can be, I created for myself a paradigm of how to solve any problem in an airplane," Sullenberger said. "And I roughly imposed that paradigm on this chaos to bring order to it, so I could solve it," Sullenberger said.
Sullenberger was quick to note that he didn't do it alone.
He said First Officer Jeffrey Skiles, whom Sullenberger met only three days earlier, air traffic controller Patrick Harten and the flight crew all did their duties to the best of their abilities to get the damaged plane down, and ensure the passengers safely evacuated onto the plane's wings and life rafts until nearby boats could come to their rescue.
Sullenberger credited work he did decades earlier developing "crew resource management" processes — which he thought would be his legacy prior to Flight 1549 — in helping make such an outcome possible. Those procedures replaced the perception of the "all-knowing" captain with shared goals among everyone working on an airplane — even if they've never worked together before.
"We make it about 'what' is right and not 'who' is right. We say to each team member, you not only have the right to speak up, you have the responsibility to speak up. So we helped create a shared sense of responsibility among all the team members for the outcome," Sullenberger said.
The Texas native and Air Force Academy graduate, who also earned a master's degree at Purdue University, seemed as though he would like to apply that same approach to addressing the issues currently facing the United States.
Sullenberger said the values he grew up with and has passed along to his daughters — "a sense of civic duty, not entitlement; of service above self; and a willingness to share in our society's many sacrifices" — still are out there for Americans to unite behind, if only we'd turn down the noise.
"In spite of how it seems in this often winner-take-all world, I think that as citizens there really are things that we owe to each other," Sullenberger said. "In every encounter with another person there is inherently an opportunity for good, for ill or for indifference. We just have to choose which it's going to be.
"At the end of our lives, I think it's unlikely that we're going to be counting our money, or cataloging the deals that we made or the things we managed to accumulate. I think it's much more likely that we may simply ask ourselves the question: Did I make a difference? I hope your answer will be yes."