Most know the name “Sully” from that fateful day, January 15, 2009, when he piloted US Airways Flight 1549 through a historic water landing on Manhattan’s Hudson River after the aircraft encountered an unprecedented bird strike shortly after takeoff. Captain Sullenberger’s entire life had prepared him for such an event, although most commercial airline pilots never have to experience dual engine loss or navigate the gravity of being responsible for all the lives on board in such a moment.
Chesley Burnett “Sully” Sullenberger III was the right person in the right place that day. “Though I never saw battle, I spent years training hard, paying close attention, demanding a great deal of myself, and maintaining constant readiness,” Sully wrote in his memoir, Sully: My Search for What Really Matters. “I survived my own close calls and carefully observed the fatal mistakes made by other pilots. That preparation did not go to waste.”
Sully was born in January 1951 in Denison, Texas. Sully’s namesake father and mother, Pauline, were also born and raised there; his father built their family home down the street from Pauline’s parents. Sully’s childhood memories feature that house prominently. Over the years, the elder Chesley would map out additions to the house, studying and planning them meticulously. Each family member had a hammer, and anything they did not know, they would learn.
By age five, Sully knew his life’s work would take place mostly in the sky. Sully would look up, enthralled, as noisy jets flew over his home, just nine miles north of Perrin Air Force Station. “Every aspect of airplanes was fascinating—the different sounds they made, the way they looked, the physics that allowed them to rocket through the sky, and most of all, the men whocontrolled them with obvious mastery,” Sully wrote. He spent hours with his binoculars on his nose or buried deep in a flight magazine or book.
Sully’s father was always finding a way to create fun family memories, despite episodes of what he called his “blue funk.” Sully’s dad attended the former Baylor College of Dentristry before serving in the United States Navy during World War II. He qualified for and considered training as a pilot, but, ultimately decided to serve as a dentist. He returned home to Denison as a full commander and began a small dental practice. “Unlike a lot of men of his generation, my dad thought of being with his family as a priority . . . he was content making less money if that meant spending more time with us,” Sully wrote. Occasionally, he would take a day off work, pull Sully and his two-year-younger sister Mary from school, and drive the family to Dallas. They listened to pop radio, ate at El Chico, watched movies at the Inwood Theater, and stayed the night at the Como Motel.
“The top of the list has to be Dallas Love Field [Airport],” Sully said to Texasliving when asked about his favorite Texas memories. “We would park on the northeast side . . . and watch all the planes land and take off, including the first jetliners.” At age eleven, Sully traveled on a plane for the first time, an experience shared with his mother, departing from Love Field Airport.
“Another place I remember from my childhood is Big Town, in Mesquite, the first enclosed shopping mall in the Southwest, which opened in 1959,” he said. “I’d never seen anything like it. And in 1968, I drove my grandparents to San Antonio so we could see HemisFair ’68 . . . one of the exhibits featured touch-tone phones. Other highlights were seeing the battleship USS Texas (BB-35) museum ship and, of course, going to Six Flags Over Texas.”
Their family also liked to spend time boating on nearby Lake Texoma. Sully’s father often allowed him to steer the boat, an important responsibility. Pauline was a fantastic water skier, according to Sully. She was also a pianist, a wonderful kindergarten teacher, and dedicated to community service and advocacy. Sully was proud to be her son and credits his mother with instilling in him “a lifelong love of reading, learning, and music. These are three very special gifts.”
At sixteen, Sully wanted to take flight lessons. His father found L.T. Cook, Jr., a former instructor with the Civilian Pilot Training Program and War Training Service before and during World War II. Sully considers these pilots “the unsung stateside heroes” of World War II. Cook owned a nearby airstrip and a crop-dusting plane, occasionally taking on young students if he felt they were well suited for aviation. Sully, the classic introvert, impressed Cook with his respect and passion. Sully earned money to pay Cook by working as a church janitor.
Sully logged his first flight on April 3, 1967; pilots document every moment in the sky in a regimented, consistent manner. Three months later, Cook tapped Sully on the shoulder, gave him instructions to take off and land thrice, and hopped out of the plane. “A pilot can take off and land thousands of times in his life, and so much of it feels like a speeding blur,” Sully wrote. “But almost always there is a particular flight that challenges a pilot or teaches or changes him, and every sensory moment of that experience remains in his head forever.” Sully successfully flew solo. By October 1968, Sully had achieved his private pilot certification. That same month, he flew his first passenger: his mother. Sully recalled that she did not seem nervous, just proud.
“I realize now that my entrance into the world of piloting was very traditional,” Sully wrote. “This is how people had learned to fly since the beginning: an older, veteran pilot teaching the basics to a youngster from a grass strip under an open sky.”
Sully’s eyesight made him an excellent military candidate. So did his intellect, with grades in the 99th percentile and a Mensa International qualification. But even with logbooks and impressive academics, if Sully wanted to attend one of the U.S. military academies, he needed a congressional appointment.
In the spring of 1969, Sully met with Democratic Representative Herbert Ray Roberts at his McKinney office. “Representative Roberts believed his appointments should be merit-based,” Sully said. “And so he had ambitious young men like me come to his office to be interviewed by a panel of retired generals and admirals who lived in the district.” Sully scored well on the civil service exam but still had to face the board. To begin, a retired U.S. Army general asked Sully which branch of the service had the most aircraft. “I knew this was a trick question,” Sully said. “And I had done my homework.” If helicopters were included in the count, the U.S. Army had the most. The interview continued smoothly, and while the general envisioned Sully at the U.S. Military Academy West Point, Sully was candid about desiring a Navy or Air Force appointment.
Sully left for the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado that June. He graduated with a bachelor’s degree in psychology and received the Outstanding Cadet in Airmanship Award. He was also selected to perform U.S. Air Force accident investigation duties. He worked his way up through the ranks: fighter pilot, flight leader, training officer, captain. For seven more years, Sully was active duty in North America and Europe and continued his education. Sully holds master’s degrees from Purdue University (industrial psychology) and the University of Northern Colorado (public administration).
At a time when civilian pilot jobs were scarce and with many qualified applicants, Sully landed a job with Pacific Southwest Airlines (later acquired by US Airways), settling in California. Sully’s memoir documents the ups and downs of the commercial airline industry over his 30-year career. Despite the hardships of a financially struggling industry, Sully built up an impressive résumé, both personally and professionally.
In July 1986, the Oakland Air Route Traffic Control Center hosted a 50th-anniversary celebration honoring the federal establishment of enroute air traffic control under the Bureau of Air Commerce. Pacific Southwest Airlines assigned Sully and a flight attendant to speak with guests. Sully arrived quite beleaguered, having just completed a red-eye flight. The attendant called in, so Lorrie Henry from the marketing department attended on the airline’s behalf. Sully asked her out, they started dating, eventually moved in together, and later married.
Sully described Lorrie as “intuitive, with high emotional intelligence, more at ease with people, and more creative.” Marriage has not been their easiest adventure, with moments of joy interwoven with times of devastation. The couple struggled to conceive, and after Lorrie endured the hormonal rollercoaster and heartbreak of unsuccessful fertility procedures, the two decided to adopt. Things happened fairly quickly on that front, and within a few years, they became forever parents to two girls: Kate and Kelly. Together, they try to focus on the positive. Lorrie turned her philosophy of gratitude into a career, encouraging other women as an outdoor fitness expert.
Sully shared his heartfelt struggle about the challenges of balancing a career he loves with a family he misses while in the air. He wrote of hectic flight schedules, times where Lorrie would parent solo, or when one of the girls would hit an important milestone in his absence. While the lifestyle was rough at times, his love and thankfulness for his wife and daughters are undeniable.
Professionally, Sully’s civilian résumé highlights his dedication to quality and safety in the airline industry. From Cook’s airstrip to the U.S.A.F. and beyond, Sully rigorously studied other pilot’s mistakes, learning from them and preparing for any possible emergency. He learned that accidents are almost never the result of a single error, but rather the result of a casual chain of events. “I’ve always wanted to know how some pilots handled challenging situations and made the best decisions. Those are men and women worth emulating.” Over the years, Sully represented the Air Line Pilots Association, International (ALPA) on investigations conducted by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) and as local Air Safety Chairman for his ALPA chapter. As a member of an ALPA national technical committee, he contributed to the creation of an FAA Advisory Circular. In the early ’90s, Sully and some other US Air pilots developed a CRM (crew management resource) air safety course, the first such leadership and team building course at the airline. “Before Flight 1549,” Sully said, “my proud professional contribution was my work in CRM.”
On January 15, 2009, 155 people boarded US Airways Flight 1549 at New York’s LaGuardia Airport, including Sully, First Officer Jeff Skiles, and three flight attendants. Take off indicated another uneventful and routine flight. But seconds after he had verbalized “birds,” the Canada geese had hit, their thuds both heard and felt. The devastating silence that immediately followed meant that this ordinary flight was now an extreme emergency situation.
Sully and First Officer Skiles quickly assessed the situation and concluded that it was too late to turn back or land at any airport. Their best option was to land the aircraft on the frigid Hudson River. Within three and a half minutes of the bird strike, Flight 1549 was in the water off of Manhattan.
Passengers evacuated onto the aircraft’s wings and into rafts as rescue watercraft arrived. Sully was the last to leave, walking the entire place twice, cold water up to his waist, ensuring no one remained. In the hours following his rescue, he waited for the news: everyone was accounted for.
It only took a few moments for Sully’s lifetime of experience and studies in safety to propel him from an incredible pilot to an American hero. Mayor Bloomberg dubbed him “Captain Cool.” Congress passed a resolution recognizing his bravery. Despite saving everyone, Sully suffered PTSD in the weeks that followed, unable to sleep well. “I kept questioning myself,” he said, but the NTSB soon confirmed the pilots’ decisions were the correct ones. He received letters from every continent including Antarctica. He made TIME’s “Top 100 Most Influential Heroes and Icons of 2009” list, and General Charles E. “Chuck” Yeager wrote, “As I have seen through my career and as we saw with Captain Sully, thinking ahead and preparing for worst-case scenarios can save your life and many others.”
The rest of that year was a whirlwind. Sully and First Officer Skiles co-chaired an aviation-related youth program: the EAA Young Eagles Program. He co-authored a book documenting his life and Flight 1549. He even returned to Denison High School as their commencement speaker. “It was on the occasion of my high school 40th reunion,” he said. “It was quite a homecoming!”
He retired from commercial aviation in 2010 and wrote another book in 2012, Making a Difference: Stories of Vision and Courage from America’s Leaders. In 2016, Clint Eastwood directed a film based on his memoirs and the events of Flight 1549, starring Tom Hanks as Sully. Today, Sully is an advocate and public speaker, lending his voice and expertise to causes for which he is passionate. But without a doubt, his name will forever be synonymous with “The Miracle on the Hudson.”