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Sullenberger: Lifetime of Preparation Led to ‘Miracle’

October 23, 2009 at 6:49 PM EDT
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Jeffrey Brown speaks with Capt. Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger whose emergency landing of a United Airways flight in New York saved the lives of 155 people.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Finally tonight, a heroic pilot reflects on his life and the moment that changed it. Jeffrey Brown sat down last week with Capt. Sully Sullenberger.

JEFFREY BROWN: On Jan. 15 of this year, a U.S. Airways flight taking off from La Guardia Airport in New York lost use of both its engines after running into a flock of geese. Captain Chesley Sullenberger managed to land the plane in the Hudson River, and all 155 on board, passengers and crew, survived.

Captain Sullenberger has now written a book, “Highest Duty.” It recounts the life lessons that prepared him to cope with that moment of peril.

And he joins me now.

And welcome to you.


JEFFREY BROWN: One of the themes that comes through is this idea of being prepared, preparation that helped you at that moment. And it comes through in a way that suggests why you don’t really like the idea of being thought of as a hero.

Explain that.

CAPTAIN CHESLEY “SULLY” SULLENBERGER III: Well, I think, like many people who have found themselves in such an extraordinary circumstance, they really do feel like their entire lives has been a preparation for that moment.

And I think that’s especially true in my case, because I remember vividly as a child knowing that I needed to be prepared for whatever might come. And my mother was a first-grade teacher. And, from her, I got a great lifelong gift of learning.

One of the things I teach my children is that I have always invested in myself, and I have never stopped learning, never stopped growing.

JEFFREY BROWN: You know, even more specifically, you write about, as a young student pilot, you studied accidents, and then, in the Air Force, you study what happened to pilots that were in accidents and why they happened.

CAPTAIN CHESLEY “SULLY” SULLENBERGER III: You know, it’s been said that a smart person learns from his or her own experiences, but a wise person learns also from the experiences of others.

And I have tried my whole life to be one of the latter. And, in fact, in flying jet fighters, if you don’t learn from other people’s experiences, and you learn only from your own, you might not survive.

Placing 'a high value on life'

JEFFREY BROWN: There is that kind of background. There is also a lot of personal background here that perhaps a lot of people didn't know.

CAPTAIN CHESLEY "SULLY" SULLENBERGER III: This is a very, very personal story.

In fact, we thought long and hard about how much of it to include in the story, but, ultimately, I decided to include all the very personal parts, because it was so important to show the reader how I ended up being the person I am and how all these experiences and all the people whose lives touched mine contributed, not only to the outcome on January 15, but to my being able to handle this attention afterward.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, one of the parts is about the suicide of your father.


JEFFREY BROWN: And you write here, "Quite frankly, one of the reasons I think I have placed such a high value on life is that my father took his."

And you say -- continue, "I'm willing to work hard to protect people's lives, to not be a bystander in part because I couldn't save my father."

CAPTAIN CHESLEY "SULLY" SULLENBERGER III: Yes. And, in fact, not only did my father's taking his own life affect me deeply, obviously, but, as a teen, there was a particular news story that was reported nationwide that came originally from New York, Kitty Genovese.

And, at the age of 13, after hearing the reports at the time that indicated that a woman was stabbed to death, was murdered over a long period, where many people may have heard or seen something about it, and, apparently, didn't choose to intervene or even call the police, that shocked me.

It was really distressing to me that that could take place in a civilized society. And I essentially promised myself that, if I ever was in a situation where I could act, I would choose to do so to help someone.

JEFFREY BROWN: Did you think about these things before this event in January? I mean, were you the kind of person that reflected on what made me, you know, how would I act in certain situations, or was it that event that set you back to thinking about all these things?


I think the fact that I live my life in a sort of a thoughtful, considered way, and for so long -- I mean, this happened to me when I was almost 58 years old. So, I had a lifetime of experiences to draw upon to meet the challenges, not only of Flight 1549, but all this attention afterward.

And I think it was the way I live my life. And I care about ideas. I care about things that are important. And I had done a lot of thinking about them before this happened.

Thrust into instant fame

JEFFREY BROWN: You were thrust, of course, into a kind of celebrity that few would ever experience.

I talk to a lot of famous people here. Usually, they have worked their way towards it, or they had some expectation, right? A musician or an actor or something might have hoped for that.

You did not live that way, thinking that this might happen, right?

CAPTAIN CHESLEY "SULLY" SULLENBERGER III: This was a life-changing event. In an instant, my life changed.

Certainly, this was a life-changing event for everyone on the airplane and their families. My family was no exception. There was no preparation for this. There was no time to prepare. If one hadn't already prepared in the way he or she had lived their life, there was no way to catch up. It was like having a fire hose pointed at you.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, the gripping description here of the three -- you say an instant -- I think three minutes from the time that the...

CAPTAIN CHESLEY "SULLY" SULLENBERGER III: Well, we had 208 seconds from the time that we struck the birds until we had landed.

JEFFREY BROWN: Two hundred and eight seconds.

CAPTAIN CHESLEY "SULLY" SULLENBERGER III: Two hundred and eight seconds.

JEFFREY BROWN: You're very aware of exactly how many seconds.

CAPTAIN CHESLEY "SULLY" SULLENBERGER III: And, you know, another amazing thing -- and not only is this a very personal story, but I think people who think they already know this story will be surprised how much I share about what was inside my head during those 208 seconds, how I made these important life-changing decisions, how we were able to solve the next problem, what I was concerned about, what I knew, what I didn't know, what my concerns were.

So, I used all my life experience to meet that challenge.

Investing in airline safety

JEFFREY BROWN: Let me ask you. The personal advice is one part of this. And I know another thing that's important to you is airline security and safety.


JEFFREY BROWN: Advice for all of us as fliers. How should we think about this? Is it -- and I was just thinking about this because I was reading just the other day -- the FAA puts out, you know, warnings or fines airlines sometimes for things it finds wrong. I just saw one the other day.

Is the system -- is that a good thing, in the sense that there is a regulatory system out there watching and catching things, or are there reasons to worry?

CAPTAIN CHESLEY "SULLY" SULLENBERGER III: The system does catch things. We have a very safe, very robust system.

What I'm talking about when I speak publicly on aviation safety is ways to make it better, and ways to continue the trend, which is toward more safety. The chances of being involved in an aircraft accident now are a fraction of what they were even 10 or 15 years ago.

But that's because of investments we have made in previous generations. What I'm encouraging is that we continue to make ongoing, future contributions and investments, and not only in technology, not only in the systems, but in people.

JEFFREY BROWN: And you were just telling me before we started you have gone back to flying.

CAPTAIN CHESLEY "SULLY" SULLENBERGER III: I have. Just weeks ago, I got to fly with Jeffrey Skiles again, my first officer from January 15. And it was a wonderful reunion flight. And we also departed New York La Guardia, and we finished the flight that we didn't quite finish back in January on the way to Charlotte.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right. The book is "Highest Duty."

Captain Chesley Sullenberger, thanks so much.


JUDY WOODRUFF: And a note: Jeff's interview was taped before this week's incident with the Northwest plane.