WESTVILLE — It's been more than 10 years since the miraculous emergency landing on the Hudson River that made airline pilot Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger a modern American icon.
The passage of time has hardly dulled the retried captain's memories of that fateful January day above the frigid New York City skies, though.
Whenever he hears the recordings of transmissions between himself and traffic control, Sullenberger finds himself back in the cockpit of the damaged Airbus A320.
He can still see the flock of Canada geese blot out the vision from the cockpit after the plane struck the birds just minutes after takeoff from LaGuardia Airport. He can still feel the vibrations from the jet’s twin engines as they took damage from the birds slamming into them.
He can still smell the burning odor that permeated the cockpit, and hear the sickening, stomach-turning sound of the turbines as they came to a stop, causing the plane to begin falling.
He can still recall the exchanges with his crew and the air traffic controller – and the many thoughts running through his head – as he decided to ditch the aircraft on the river rather than attempt an emergency landing at a nearby runway.
And, after safely gliding the crippled jet to land in what would later be called the “Miracle on the Hudson,” Sullenberger can remember the first thing he and his co-pilot, Jeffrey Skiles, said to one another.
“Jeff and I turned to each other and we both said, ‘Well, that wasn’t as bad as I thought,’” Sullenberger said.
The pilot recounted his vivid memories from the famed accident — and the decades of experiences leading up to it — in front of a capacity crowd at Purdue University Northwest’s Westville campus Sunday afternoon. Sullenberger enthralled audiences during his presentation, “208 Seconds: A Lifetime of Lessons,” the penultimate talk of this year’s PNW Sinai Forum series.
Born and raised in Denison, Texas, Sullenberger learned from his parents and grandparents the importance of education, civic responsibility and continual self-improvement – values he credits with making him the person he is today.
Enamored with aviation as a child, Sullenberger learned to fly at just 16 years old, while attending high school.
The young standout entered the U.S. Air Force Academy in 1969, and, after graduating in 1973, the Air Force immediately sent him to Purdue University to begin studying for his master's degree.
Following the completion of his studies, Sullenberger became a fighter pilot, requiring him to hone his skills and knowledge of aviation to a “razor’s edge,” he said.
“You haven’t seen leadership and team building and effective culture until you’ve seen someone lead a formation of four jet fighters at 400 feet above the ground,” he said.
His Air Force career also taught him the importance of evaluating the successes and failures of each mission, of determining "what worked, what didn't, why and, most importantly, what we can do to make it better next time," Sullenberger said.
He carried over that mentality when he entered civilian service in 1980, becoming a commercial pilot for Pacific Southwest Airlines, later joining U.S. Airways after the company acquired his former employer. Sullenberger made aviation safety a priority throughout his 30-year career, helping develop, implement and teach a crew resource management course for U.S. Airways.
His wealth of knowledge and litany of experiences all came to a head in the late afternoon of Jan. 15, 2009.
Serving as the pilot in command of U.S. Airlines Flight 1549, Sullenberger and his crew guided the Charlotte-bound aircraft to an uneventful takeoff from LaGuardia's Runway 4 at 3:24 p.m. (EST).
Once up in the air, the flight was “completely routine and unremarkable – for the first 100 seconds,” he said. “Then it became our ultimate challenge of a lifetime."
While nearly 3,000 feet up in the sky, the craft struck the flock of Canada geese about 4.5 miles from the airport, the large birds filling the cockpit window “like a Hitchcock film,” Sullenberger said. Several birds ended up damaging both of the engines, causing the vehicle to begin to plummet toward the city below.
“It felt as if the forward momentum of the airplane had nearly stopped in mid-air," Sullenberger said. “It felt as if the bottom had fallen out of the world.”
For the first time in his four decades in aviation, Sullenberger began to doubt whether he and the rest of the plane’s occupants were going to make it.
“Unlike all those other flights, this flight was probably not going to end on a runway, with the aircraft undamaged,” he said. “I was OK with that – as long as I could solve the problem.”
Quickly realizing that the falling aircraft was too far away from LaGuardia or nearby Teterboro Airport to attempt an emergency landing, his only remaining option was to try to land on the Hudson.
After telling the rest of the crew and passengers to "brace for impact," Sullenberger and his co-pilot guided the falling aircraft toward the river.
Despite coming in at speeds three to four times faster than usual for a landing, the pilots still had to preciously adjust the angle of descent as it approached the river. If they came in too high, the craft would hit the surface too hard – and if they came in too low, the nose would fall right through, causing it to begin sinking into the frigid water.
At 100 feet above the surface, Sullenberger began to pull. Within four seconds, the plane touched down. After several tense seconds, the pilots realized that although the landing was rough, the aircraft was stable and floating.
“It was in one piece,” Sullenberger said.
Still, there was little time to catch their breath. The crew immediately began helping the 155 panicked passengers evacuate the craft, with the stranded occupants waiting on the wings for rescue.
Everyone aboard U.S. Airlines Flight 1549 survived the incident, which one National Transportation Safety Board official would later describe as "the most successful ditching in aviation history."
In the weeks and months that followed, Sullenberger heard from fellow pilots and colleagues who told him they weren’t surprised by the outcome, he said. Throughout his career, people knew him as not just an extraordinary aviator, but a leader who always put the needs of his crew and passengers first.
“It turned out my reputation had been built one interaction, one person, one day at a time,” he said.
Sullenberger's actions would instantly propel him to the spotlight, with then-president-elect Barack Obama inviting him and his crew to his inauguration later that month. In 2016, Hollywood director Clint Eastwood helmed a film adaptation of the famous flight, titled “Sully,” with Tom Hanks portraying Sullenberger.
Though he retired from the airline in 2010, Sullenberger has remained a passionate advocate for airline safety, speaking on the subject to audiences across the world.
He also uses his platform to encourage others to leave a positive impact on the world – whether that be saving 155 lives in a daring emergency landing or merely choosing to treat others with kindness and respect.
“At the end of our lives, I think it’s unlikely that we will be counting our money or cataloging our deals or the things we’ve managed to accumulate,” Sullenberger said. “I think it’s much more likely that we will simply ask ourselves a simple question – ‘Did I make a difference?’ I hope your answer will be yes.”