The Oath with Chuck Rosenberg
Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger: My Aircraft
Chuck Rosenberg: Welcome to the Oath. I am Chuck Rosenberg and I am honored to be your host for another compelling conversation with a fascinating guest from the world of public service. This week, my guest is Captain Sully Sullenberger, the pilot of US Airways flight 1549. In January of 2009, his airbus A320 collided with a flock of Canada geese shortly after takeoff from LaGuardia Airport and lost power in both engines. Thanks to the remarkable work from Sully and his copilot, Jeff Skiles, all 155 people aboard survived an emergency landing in the frigid Hudson River. Sully was born in a small north Texas town, Denison. There, as a teenager, he learned to fly a single engine prop plane off a simple grass strip. A serious and talented, though shy and introverted high school student, Sully was admitted to the highly competitive United States Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs. And when he graduated in 1973, he received the Academy’s prestigious Airmanship Award as its top flyer. Sully flew the F4 Phantom jet fighter in the Airforce, requiring thousands of hours of flight time, perfecting his skills, and honing his airmanship. And what is airmanship? The ability to feel the aircraft, to understand the environment in which it operates, to be situationally aware, to anticipate issues, and to solve problems. Airmanship enabled Sully to save navigate his crippled passenger jet, with 155 souls on board, to a dramatic water landing. Sully’s story is a remarkable one: humble beginnings, hard work, dedication, and a lifetime of experience and knowledge that helped him in a moment of unprecedented crisis, to solve one problem after another, step by step, in 208 seconds, to save the lives of his passengers and crew. Captain Chesley Sully Sullenberger, welcome to The Oath.
Chesley Sully Sullenberger: Thank you, Chuck. It's an honor to be with you.
Rosenberg: It's an honor to have you here Captain. Okay for me to call you Sully?
Sullenberger: Oh, the whole world does, I think you should too.
Rosenberg: I will. Sully, you grew up in Denison, Texas near the Oklahoma border. Tell me a little bit about that.
Sullenberger: You're right. We were just across the Red River from Oklahoma, a stone's throw, and I lived 10 miles outside a small town in Texas. Turns out, it was the birthplace of general, former President Eisenhower. A great place to grow up, a wonderful childhood. I was born almost the exact midpoint of the 20th century. And so, I grew up during the 50s and 60s. It was a good place to grow up and a good time to grow up.
Rosenberg: You know, I noted that General Eisenhower was born in Denison, Texas. I had always associated him with Abilene, Kansas, but I learned something in reading about you and Denison.
Sullenberger: You know, I was told that, at first, President Eisenhower did not know he had been born in Denison. His father was a worker for the local railroad. At a very young age, his family moved to Kansas and he always considered Kansas as home. I think it was later in life that he learned he was born in Denison.
Rosenberg: Tell us a little bit about your family, Sully, your mother and father and your sister.
Sullenberger: I have one sister, Mary, 22 months younger. My father was Chesley Burnett Sullenberger, Jr. He was a dentist, and my mother was a first-grade teacher for 25 years in Denison, Texas. Before that, she had been a kindergarten teacher. She had left college her senior year before she graduated to marry my father. I was born three years later, and she always regretted not taking the time to finish her final term and get her degree. And so, when I was probably in junior high school, she went back to school, finished her bachelor's, got a master's degree, and began career teaching. And that was her lifelong passion. And of course, after you've taught first grade in a small town, you had most of the town in your classroom, and she was a minor local celebrity, I suppose.
Rosenberg: You said she was beloved in town and that you received from her a lifelong gift: a love of reading and learning and music.
Sullenberger: Absolutely. And those gifts continue still. I think it was fueled by a natural intellectual curiosity. And my love of learning and music has continued and it's filled my life with a lot of joy. And I credit my parents for that. But you know, it wasn't just my parents. I think one of the things that's remarkable about an otherwise, unremarkable family and childhood, is that all for my grandparents, and these are people who were born in the 19th century, attended college. And that's remarkable, especially for women of that era. And so, I think the wonderful gifts in addition to the love of reading and learning is in my family. Education was valued, ideas were important, and they expected us to strive for excellence. In other words, they would keep telling us, my sister and me, that you don't have to have all A's but you have to achieve your maximum potential. You have to do your best. That was always the mantra.
Rosenberg: You describe your father as a wonderful man, a wonderful father, a man of great integrity. I love the story you tell about how he built his own home and continued to expand his own home, and how you and your mother and your sister involved in the construction.
Sullenberger: Yes, yeah, he was a real gentleman. I'd never heard him raise his voice. Only on a rare occasion would I even hear him utter curse word. The one situation I can remember is he dropped a pane of glass on his foot and cut it deeply. But yeah, he was self-taught autodidact in many ways. He had taken one drafting course in high school. And so, he borrowed $3,000, bought a parcel of land from my mother's family--they were farmers--and then began to build his house. And we expanded it over the course of my childhood. Each of the four of us, my sister, my parents, and I had our own hammers and we learned all these trades by doing them and my father helped us to learn how to lay bricks, how to measure twice, and cut a piece of wood once--you don't have to try to get another piece of wood if you messed it up. We did roofing, we did electrical plumbing--it's amazing what you can learn to do. And so, yeah, we literally built our home and added on every three or four years, all during my childhood until it was bigger, single story ranch home.
Rosenberg: Do you still have that hammer?
Sullenberger: No, no, that's long gone.
Rosenberg: You have written and spoken movingly of your father's struggles with depression. He ultimately took his own life.
Sullenberger: Yeah, he died on Thursday, December 7th, 1995. And my mother had to be the one to discover him. He had had a serious gall bladder infection and some comorbidities. He had been in the ICU for a month. He had just come home that day, and was facing along and I'm sure difficult recuperation, and he was a very proud man. We knew that throughout my childhood, he had what he called his “blue funks” --we didn't know to call it depression, we didn't know his inner demons. And she was in the kitchen, getting him a glass of juice when she heard a loud pop. And then, she first thought she knew what that sound was. And then she was certain that she did know what that sound was. And she ran to the bedroom and had to be the one to find him to call for help to get the windowpane repaired where the bullet had exited the room, and clean the stain off the carpet. And we got there as soon as we could. It was a bleak, gray, winter day when we spread his ashes on the corner of the property.
Rosenberg: Later when your beloved mother passed, and again, you write incredibly movingly of this scene, you and your wife scattered her ashes on Mount Whitney during a hike.
Sullenberger: Yeah, she died just a few years after he did. She was younger than he, by almost 10 years, and my dad didn't like to travel a lot, he was content to stay at home much of the time. But after he died, she reinvented herself. She really reinvigorated her life. And she began to travel with friends of hers and live more fully. And then, I got a call one day that she had been diagnosed with colon cancer. And it was caught late, which is surprising because had she had the proper screening, and I don't know if she didn't ask for it, if the doctor didn't suggest it, you know, she probably would have been caught at an earlier age, and she lived a month past her diagnosis. So, her life was tragically cut short too, but we think of her often. I had children later in life, so my children really didn't know my parents much before they passed, but we talked about them and they remember the stories about them. After my mother died, we--my wife and I, Laura and I--took her ashes a couple of places. We had hiked Mount Whitney that year. And when we got near the summit, looking out over the Sierra Nevada, we released some of her ashes. And then a few months later, we traveled to Hawaii, somewhere my mother had never been, but it always wanted to go, a place that my father had been stationed early in World War II with the Navy and we spread some of her ashes, both on top of Mount Whitney and in the Hawaiian islands. Laurie and I said to each other as we released her ashes, I hope that she enjoys her journey.
Rosenberg: When you were a little boy, and I mean very little, four years old, you wanted to be a police officer or a firefighter. By the time you turn the ripe old age of five, you knew you wanted to be a pilot.
Sullenberger: It was as if I had never really considered anything else. I never really had a plan B had I not been able to be a professional pilot the rest of my life. I was always fascinated by it, I think my father had some influence there too, because he had always liked airplanes. In fact, he graduated from Baylor dental school in Dallas in June of ‘41, and it was obvious even six months before Pearl Harbor that there was going to be a war that would involve the US had been going on in Europe since September of ‘39. And he became a US Navy officer. And at first, he was going to go into naval aviation to be a pilot. He passed the test and the physical, but then at the last minute, he decided, you know, I've trained in DDS, I'll go ahead and serve that way. And that was probably fortuitous because many of his contemporaries who were naval aviators early in the war are lost, you know, when we were not doing well against the Japanese at least until midway. Yeah, he had always liked airplanes. And so, I think that love and that availability of seeing books and magazines around the house about it, I would read voraciously, everything I could about every airplane, learn all the specifications. You know, how fast they go, what common engine they had, what type of airplane it was, what they look like. And we also happen to live about 10 miles from an airport airspace. And so, I'd see the Jets fly over on daily basis. And I could tell you exactly which kinds of airplanes each of them was. So, I think for all those reasons, and having early on built my first little model airplane plastic one, one of the ones that was in cellophane inside a cereal box and all that was required to assemble it was to snap the wings on top of the fuselage. And it happened to be a model of Lindbergh's Spirit of St. Louis. And of course, the Lindbergh flight had been less than 30 years before that. So, I think, for all those reasons, you know, flying was in my mind, it was something that fascinated me. The idea of just being a little bit higher above the surface of the Earth, and being able to see farther, and go places I'd never gone before, that was an adventure that intrigued me. I think what has always fascinated me about flying, what I like most about it, I described with two words: freedom and mastery. The freedom to cut the bounds with Earth and rise above it and fly wherever you want. And then, the mastery of the machine, of the situation, the fact that you're controlling the outcome, literally, at every moment of every flight, and the airplane doesn't know if you're male or female, or what color your skin is, or how old you are--it only knows what input you're making on the controls. And that's what matters: the skill, the knowledge, the judgement.
Rosenberg: I have lots of questions for you about flying, Sully, but I also have a recollection similar to yours. When I was 10, my father took me on my first airplane ride from New York City to Philadelphia. I think it was all pre-textual, he had no reason to go there other than to expose me to flight. We had lunch and then we flew home. When you were 11, your mother took you on your first airplane ride. And I think you and I were both required to wear sports coats for that trip.
Sullenberger: I'm not sure if we were required to, or if it was just an expectation, you know, expectations are powerful. And so that's just what people did. It seemed like one of the things that's changed in the last almost 70 years that I've been sentient, is that there's less agreement about what those things are that we all should do. I think in many ways, it's broadened horizons, it's made us freer to be whoever we decide to be. But yeah, that's just what people did then, you put on your Sunday best. It was a special event. And so, yes, my--even though I've watched airplanes for years, my first Bridon airplane was in the early 60s when my mom went to a Texas PTA convention in Austin, the state capitol. And it was a brand-new piston engine Convair from Dallas Love Field, to what was in Austin, Mueller Airport, which is now gone. But I remember vividly I got a window seat. It was kind of a rainy, cloudy day, but I could see the ground for quite a while. And as we climbed and everything got smaller, I noticed that cars were like toys and people on the ground were like ants, they were so small, so far away, and it looked like I was looking down on the model railroad layout that somebody had constructed. That was my first, very vivid impression about the flight. But one of the one of the people I saw on that day, about the board another flight in Dallas Love was Colonel John Shorty Powers, who then, was the voice of Mercury Control. During the first US manned space flights in the early 60s, even before John Glenn's flight, Colonel Powers was the voice of Mission Control and he was the voice one heard when you watch the live television broadcast of the first launches that the US made it to space. And so, I saw him, I recognized him as a young, you know, not even a teenager yet, just because I'd watched him on TV. It was amazing to be able to fly, to be able to see someone I'd seen on television, that was a first.
Rosenberg: But you didn't approach him?
Sullenberger: No, I didn't. I didn't think he wanted to be bothered by a kid. I'm sure he had someplace to go. But you know, my father was not cool, but he was cool enough to let me stay home a few hours early in the morning when the first space launches occurred, and go to school late to be able to watch them live on TV. Something interesting I did not get to do for the first lunar landing. See, by then, I just graduated from high school entered basic training at the Air Force Academy that summer of ‘69 during the Vietnam War, and our superiors would not break protocol to let us watch the first man landing on the moon. So, I, I never forgave them for that here was at the Air Force Academy and you think nothing would inspire us to succeed and to excel more than watching the first moon landing, and we didn't get to do it. But so, I'm one of the few people who was alive then who could have, but didn't get the chance,
Rosenberg: As a student, and this is a good segue for that, Sully, you had described yourself as a very studious, very serious, introverted, and shy.
Sullenberger: And I haven’t changed that much.
Rosenberg: Well, in one way you did, you—
Sullenberger: --I have grown. I've grown.
Rosenberg: Yeah, you also stuttered as a child, something you wrote about in an op-ed for the New York Times in 2020, I was struck by something that you wrote in that op-ed, that you become a true leader, not because of how you speak, but because of what you have to say.
Sullenberger: Yes. And I also said in that piece that our imperfections do not define us, our character does. And it's a lot easier to treat a speech disorder than a character defect. And that's especially true in this age. Yeah, I was a very young child when I had a hard time getting the words out that came out in a jumble. My speech couldn't keep up with my thoughts. I never got any speech therapy. I just, through focus and practice in trying to control my breathing--which singing in the church choir helped a bit--I managed to overcome it. You know, it's something that's always still there a little bit. My speech doesn't seem to come as naturally, easily, and fluid as some, I have to really think about it and work on it. But again, it's amazing what you can learn to do.
Rosenberg: We will get to this later, Sully, but when I read the transcript of the cockpit voice recorder from your 1549 flight out of LaGuardia, I am struck by how perfect your speech is, the diction, the pronunciation, under enormous stress, was absolutely perfect.
Sullenberger: Well, there's a little saying especially among fighter pilots, that you'd almost rather die than sound bad on the radio, so you know, it's a matter of professional pride If nothing else, no matter what's happening, no matter how bad it is, the challenge, the emergency, the situation you're facing, you find a way to summon up from somewhere within. And this is something that's learned, through experience, exposure, practice over many years, sometimes decades, to be able to compartmentalize one's mind and focus clearly on the task at hand and sound confident. And that's something I made it a point to do, not just during the radio transmissions on that famous flight to the Hudson River, but also in that one PA announcement I made to the passengers in the flight attendants in the cabin. I took, what was probably an extravagant amount of time in those 208 seconds that we had from the time we get birds until we had actually landed, I took probably three or four seconds to, to think to choose my words very carefully before I spoke on the PA to the cabin, and to sound confident because I knew the courage can be contagious. I wanted to have the passengers and crew understand that I was the captain, I was responsible, but that I had a plan. And that together we could solve each of these terrible problems until we either solved them all or solved as many as we could, enough to survive. And so that was why I took such great pains to sound good on the radio and good on PA, and I think that's something that just came naturally after that point. 42 years of flying and 20,000 hours in the air.
Rosenberg: So, all great pilots start somewhere for you. Sully, it was with an instructor named Lt. Cooke, back in North Texas, who charged you $6 an hour for the plane plus $3 an hour for his instructor fee.
Sullenberger: Yeah, Lt. Cooke Jr. was his name. And he had been a civilian pilot training program instructor right before and during World War II, as FDR’s administration was trying to build up a cadre of pilots who could then be used by the military services in what seemed to be an inevitable world war that was expanding from Europe. And he was a real mentor to me. And he did what mentors do: he saw the potential in me, and then he helped me to realize it. My father, the dentist, through a patient of his, had heard about Lt. He was a crop duster. On occasion, if he liked the look of you, he'd take on somebody who's a student, teach them how to fly. And it was, again, it was a good time to learn in a good way to learn. It was a very fundamental, very traditional way of learning to fly. I learned to fly off his grass strip, just east of Sherman, Texas, the nearby town, east on highway 82, just south of the highway. It wasn't very long, and he would have to mow it to keep the grass down to a reasonable level, so it wouldn't drag if you took off or landed the wheels on the airplane. And it was a very basic airplane, a small piston engine. It was so simple. It didn't even have an electrical system, so there was no battery, there was no starter, there were no electronic instruments, no radio. You would hand prop the engine to start it, so it required two people. I would sit in the cockpit, holding the brakes, so the airplane wouldn't move when the engine started. Lt. would pull the prop through until the engine started. Then, he'd get in and we'd fly. It was completely visual flying. It was completely manual, there was no automation. There were very few instruments and what instruments they were really basic. We had what we called a “whiskey compass,” a Compass Card, resting in a reservoir of alcohol and it would move freely with the magnetic lines of flux, as you turned about the Earth. That was our compass. We got an airspeed indicator that was measuring the speed of the air entering the front of the pido tube that measures the airspeed. We got a barometric altimeter that sensed the lessening of pressure of the air as we climbed, it would indicate our altitude and feet. We had a few instruments to control the engine speed and that was about it. The fuel gauge was a little cork float visible through a plexiglass screen that you would see on one side of the wing. I mean, everything about it was simple, was very fundamental. It required great skill to be able to master this airplane. It was a tailwheel airplane and had a wheel in the back instead of wheel at the front, in addition to the two main wheels, which makes it a little bit less stable on the ground, especially in a strong crosswind. So, it really forces one to learn very well, deeply internalize these fundamental flying skills about feeling the forces of air on the airplane. Not just getting in the airplane, but putting it on, strapping it on, and making it an extension of oneself, so that you sense every part of it as you navigate this ocean of air. That's what was so wonderful about the way I learned to fly. And that's not the way people typically learn to fly now.
Rosenberg: And that thing you're describing is part of what constitutes airmanship. Is that fair?
Sullenberger: Yeah, basically airmanship, in my way of thinking, is mastering the, the knowledge, the skill, the judgment, to be the absolute master of the airplane and all the systems and of the situation and the environmental conditions you're facing continuously, simultaneously throughout the flight from start to finish. And so, it's, it's being able to, to manage the airplane as you fly it to keep it safe and to keep it on the optimum flight path.
Rosenberg: And so, you your lessons in airmanship and piloting began in April of 1967, with your first flight with Lt. Cooke. Two months after your first instructional flight, you soloed for the first time. That sounds like a very quick transition from flying for the first time to soloing for the first time.
Sullenberger: but it could have been even faster had I flown more often, more frequently, I was typically flying, you know, a few times, every week or so. Had I been flying on a daily basis, I probably could have done it in a week or two. But of course, I didn't have to learn as much to be able to do that then as one has to learn now, because the whole process of flying was much simpler. The airplanes themselves were much simpler. And I was flying in a remote area where there wasn't an air traffic control tower. It was completely visual and we were on our own in uncontrolled airspace, but I soloed at about the seven hour and 15-minute total flying time point. But it was a marvelous experience. The first solo is a real milestone for every pilot.
Rosenberg: I love the fact that you kept all of your logbooks, that you still have your first entry, in your first logbook, from your first flight, with Mr. Cooke. In October of 1968, you took up your first passenger, and you put a little asterisk in your logbook for that flight.
Sullenberger: That's because I just achieved my first pilot certification with a private pilot's certificate, which meant that, unlike the previous flights where I was flying solo, now, as a licensed pilot, I could take a passenger with me. My first passenger flight was taking my mother up and then my sister.
Rosenberg: And Sully, you graduated from Denison High School, near the top of your class, you were active in in school, in music, you were an honor student, but tell us the story of how you ended up at the US Air Force Academy.
Sullenberger: Well, I knew I wanted to fly. And I thought probably the best way to fly would be to fly jet fighters. And I call them jet fighters, not fighter jets as people tend to do now. I'm not sure where that came from, but it sure seems, it certainly seems to be a thing. And I thought I would either be in the Air Force of the Navy. And so, I thought, well, the best way to be in one of the military services is to go to one of the service academies. That would mean being at Annapolis, the US Naval Academy or the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs. And so, I applied to them both, had good grades, do well on the LSAT. There are congressional appointments to the service academies. There are presidential appointments, as you probably know, and each congressman or Congresswoman did the process a bit differently. In my district, the congressman made it a competitive and not patronage sort of appointment. And so, he had every applicant, take the civil service exam. I went to the US post office, Denison, took the test did well. And then I went to the congressman's office in a nearby--in the county seat and had an interview with a bunch of retired generals and admirals who lived in the district and who were an ad hoc panel to make recommendations about the candidates best suited for appointment to the academies to the congressman. And I sat in a conference room by myself with generals and admirals, every branch of the service, except maybe the Coast Guard. And they asked me questions about why I want to do this. Of course, this was during the height of the Vietnam War. And I told them, I wanted to fly, and I wanted to fly jets. And of course, the army general who was there said, “Well, do you know which branch has the most aircraft?” And I thought about it for a second. I said, well, this guy obviously wants me to go to West Point. And I knew that Kennedy rotorcraft helicopters that the army had a lot more air vehicles than even the Air Force and Navy. So, I said “it's the army, but I want to fly jets general.” And so, my first appointment was to Annapolis and I was designated to an alternate appointment to the Air Force Academy for that year, as it turned out, whoever was the principal appointee for the Air Force Academy decided to go somewhere else. And so, I moved up to principal and I chose to go to Air Force instead of Navy primarily, because at that time a midshipman, a student at the Naval Academy, couldn't fly, there was no active flying program for students. Whereas at the Air Force Academy, there was, and so that was the deciding factor for me. And I was glad I did because during the course of my four years of study at the Air Force Academy, I got there with not just a private certificate, but a commercial pilot's certificate. And shortly after my first year or two there, I got my flight instructor certifications from FAA. And so, I flew for almost 1000 hours my four years at the Academy, most of the instruction given to other cadets in airplanes and gliders.
Rosenberg: In fact, when you graduated in 1973, you received the outstanding cadet and airmanship award. Again, that word: airmanship that we had talked about earlier.
Sullenberger: Yeah, that was a real honor. And I was awarded that honor by former World War II fighter pilot who had been my airmanship clack--that meant a lot to me—he flew Mustangs during the Second War, P51s.
Rosenberg: And that means you are essentially the top flyer in your class.
Sullenberger: Yeah, I think just because I've done more of it than almost anybody else, including parachuting, I got my jump on site. So, we had a freefall parachuting course at the Air Force Academy. They also offered a chance to go to Fort Benning, Georgia in the summertime and do a static line jumps and get your parachute wings. That way would take five static line jumps out of an airplane, but at the Air Force Academy, we got seven jobs that were 10 second delay free falls, and so it was a bit more exciting and got to do it right there in Colorado.
Rosenberg: And by the way, when you entered the Air Force Academy in 1969, was that the first time that you took the oath, Sully?
Sullenberger: It was. And then, of course, we were--took it that first day as new cadets. There were 1406 of us that first day who took the oath, who, if we were successful, would graduate four years later as a class of ’73. 844 did. And then, of course, we took that oath again, when we were sworn in as officers commissioned in the air force upon graduation, on June 6th, 1973.
Rosenberg: What do you remember about taking the oath for the first time?
Sullenberger: Well, it was--that whole experience, a basic summer was a shock to the system. I knew a little bit about what to expect, but I didn't know the whole story. I didn't know how hard it was going to be. I didn't know how we'd have to dig so deep to be able to, to get through it, to have the perseverance, to not stop the night quit physically, mentally, academically, all of it--the discipline of that basic summer especially, and then the whole first year as, as underclassmen, until we were recognized in May of 1970. After the first year was over as upperclassmen, it was strenuous. It was intended to weed out those who really weren't dedicated to service. It was hard. So, the words meant a lot to me. And I remember the oath still, and it's a constant reminder of what service means. And I think that's something that my parent’s generation intuitively understood. You know, they were the generation that we now call the greatest generation, I think, with good reason. They described themselves as ordinary people who found themselves in extraordinary circumstances. They said they were just doing their jobs, but as we now know, with the benefit of hindsight for the long lens of history, by just doing their jobs, they saved the world from fascism and authoritarian rule. Having grown up during the Great Depression, as they did, the last big financial upheaval, and then experiencing World War II, whether as a combatant or someone who, as a civilian had to work at a defense plan or at least have rationing to deal with, there was a real sense of common purpose, a sense of civic duty, of service above self, not entitlement, and a willingness to share our society sacrifices, even the really inconvenient ones. I think those are the things that I got from my parent’s generation, and, and so, when it was my generations turn to serve, even during an unpopular war, I volunteered, just as my father had done, but like him I didn't see combat. By the time I finished all my training Saigon and fallen in the US involvement in Vietnam was over, but I was prepared to go if I had to.
Rosenberg: My friend, Mark is an Air Force Academy graduate and a Delta pilot and he wanted me to convey to you six words, Sully: fast, neat, average, friendly, good, good.”
Sullenberger: That is the standard response to each meal critique at the Academy. Each meal is taken for the cadets in Mitchell Hall, which is a huge expanse that holds all 4000 cadets at once. And at each table of 10, they're all four classes. First-Class men, the seniors sit at the head of the table, and the fourth-class men, the freshmen at the foot of the table, and one of the freshmen always has to at the end of each meal, fill out the form: “0-96,” which is the evaluation of the meal and there are standard answers that only in exceptional circumstances, one is allowed to vary from the answers to all the questions were fast, neat, average, friendly, good, good. And then in the comments section, one would write none period. And so that was the one way that one Air Force Academy graduate could identify another, is by starting that sequence of words and having the other one finish it.
Rosenberg: Eventually, you are signed to undergraduate pilot training, Columbus Air Force Base in Mississippi, and you earn your Air Force wings in 1975, where you completed training at Luke Air Force Base in Arizona on the F4 Phantom. Tell us about that.
Sullenberger: Well, the Phantom was a Vietnam Aero workhorse of a fighter. It wasn't particularly sleek looking, but it exuded just raw power. They'd had various nicknames, “Rhino,” for its overall shape and ferocity, “Double Ugly,” because as opposed to single engine fighters that had two jet engines, and like I said, it wasn't particularly sleek. It's proof positive that you put enough thrust on a brick it'll fly. But it was a rugged airplane that served me well. In fact, I had a few minor generator failures or hydraulics failures on it, but, you know, for the most part, no huge challenges flying it very rugged, reliable airplane reliable engines. In fact, all through, but not just my Air Force career, but my airline career until January 15th, 2009, I had never experienced in flight, the failure of even a single engine. Of course, we trained for it many times, but I'd never had an engine fail on me until I've been flying for 42 years. And only then, because it was hit by large birds that irreparably damaged the engines. So, it was a lot of fun. It was flying the fighters was the best flight I've ever done. Again, it was a realization of a lifelong dream. Fighters are powerful, sophisticated machines that are just magnificent. Now, they're designed as weapons of war, but just the flying of them is, is amazing. It was so much fun, you know, what I describe about it is--and the same is true in a different way of airline flying--it's a lot of fun to be particularly good at something that's difficult to do well. And so, I think when one enters a profession like that, one essentially tries to accomplish three things, in whatever field you're in. I think, first, one wants to prove oneself competent, you know, having the ability to do the job. And if one consistently demonstrates competence over a period of time, one can eventually gain their co-worker’s trust. And if one works particularly hard, is particularly adept, and over a long period of time, proves one's competence and demonstrates trustworthiness and authority fortune smiles on them, they may eventually gain their colleagues respect. And that's what this professional pride of aviation really is about in people: it's being the best, most complete, most knowledgeable pilot, you can be with the best judgment and, and having your peers understand that. And so, when I was an airline pilot, I was first an officer for eight years before I was a captain for 22 years. The captains with whom I flew early on, that I'm most respected were the ones who made it look easy even when we all know it wasn't because they planned ahead, because they anticipated, because they were so skillful they didn't need to use that skill all the time. They just made it smooth, and they worked hard, never be surprised by anything. Those are the best.
Rosenberg: I was struck by a passage and one of your two books, in this case, Making a Difference, where you wrote that in the Air Force, when you're flying in the formation of four jet fighters, one hundred feet off the ground, at 600 knots, covering a nautical mile, every six seconds. Success and failure, life and death, can be measured in seconds and in feet. In fact, you had friends die in accidents, you investigated fatal accidents. The body of knowledge that you carried with you into that cockpit on January 15th, 2009, flight 1549, included all the things you had done, and all the things you would learn from all the people you had worked with.
Sullenberger: Yeah, and you know, knowledge is cumulative. And on that famous flight, I had to make--my crew and I had to make important decisions in real time that had life and death consequences to make the divert decision. I knew it was just a matter of a few minutes before our flight path intersected the surface of the earth because we were using gravity at the absence of engines for us to provide the forward motion of the airplane, we were gliding downhill rapidly descending at the rate of two floors per second if you were a hotel elevator, for example. But It wasn't that I had time to think about each of these many factors in making the important decisions I had to make, it was that having all these little bits of knowledge and experience accessible to me in my mind, helped me to frame these decisions. There wasn't time to think about each of these factors, but they formed essentially a paradigm of how to solve any problem in an airplane, how to set clear priorities, even in an ambiguous situation for which we'd never specifically trained. If I did our flight simulators at the time, it wasn't possible to practice water landings, the only training we'd ever gotten for a water landing was a theoretical classroom discussion. So, we're going to try to do something we've never done before and get it right the first time in less than three and a half minutes. That's what was so challenging about this. And I think part of what we had done over those years besides develop a paradigm of how to solve problems and set clear priorities in novel events, is we had learned how to develop situational awareness, or “SA,” as pilots call it, which is developing an accurate mental model of your immediate reality, your immediate surroundings, the entire situation, and keeping that model updated as conditions change, knowing exactly what's happening, exactly where you are, where you must go, how you're going to get there, that global awareness that pilots develop, the ability to have, that's critical in a situation like that.
Rosenberg: One of the things you wrote about in Highest Duty that really struck me was about other accidents, what captains did right, and perhaps, wrong under extraordinary circumstances. For instance, in October of 1956, Captain Ogg ditched the plane in the Pacific, he was flying from Hawaii to San Francisco, he lost two engines and the other two were insufficient to get them to his destination, circled for eight hours to burn off fuel, and everyone survived. When you're in the cockpit of flight 1549, you're perhaps not conscious of Captain Ogg and what he did, but it has to form part of the background for your experience and knowledge and wisdom.
Sullenberger: Well, one hopes one gets to the point of wisdom, certainly, one at least, must have good judgment. That's one of the most important things that any pilot can have, especially a captain who was the pilot in command, the one who is in the left seat, ultimately responsible for every aspect, everything that happens, or doesn't happen on that flight. I knew of the ditchings in the 50s. But even more important, I knew of all the other seminal accidents that had happened. And most pilots of my generation have that tacit institutional knowledge. We know of all the seminal accidents that happened for the last half century or more, and we know about the airplane type, about the location, about the major facts of the accident. But most importantly, we know how that knowledge that has been learned at great cost, literally historically bought with blood that we do not forget and have to relearn has informed everything we do, it has informed our equipment designs, it is informed our training, our policies, our procedures. Everything we know everything we do, we know, what we have, is because someone, somewhere died to give us that knowledge. And that's part of why we feel such an intense dedication, intense obligation to remember not just what to do and how to do it, why it's important that we do the things we do, to remember the lessons of the past, to adapt, going forward to the future and for whom we owe it. When we enter this profession of piloting this beloved profession, I consider a calling and not a job. When we iterate, we essentially make a tacit promise to all our future passengers that we're going to use this institutional knowledge, we're going to use it to keep them as safe as we know how to keep them. And that's something we feel deeply and intensely on every flight. So, for example, I remember Northwest flight 255 in the late 80s in Detroit were the cause of distraction, apparently the crew had forgotten to set the flaps and slats for takeoff. They stalled and crashed. Only a four-year-old girl survived. She's now in her late 30s. So, we remember when we taxi out and we're going before takeoff checklist. As a captain, I would pick a long, straight section of taxiways with no intersections, no distractions, to do that checklist, to make sure that nothing is missed, to make sure that we have achieved our goal of keeping our passengers safe. During the famous flight in January of 2009, at one point, our traffic controller, a wonderful young man, a very dedicated man trying desperately to get us back to a runway, Patrick Harden. He offered me a variety of different runways. And I said, “I'm not sure we can make any runway, we may end up in the Hudson.” And as I said that I remembered another famous flight in July of 1989, United flight 232, was a DC 10 traveling from Denver to Chicago, and the captain was a man named al Haynes whom I've met. Sadly, he passed away last year, but I was able to speak at his memorial service. He's considered a hero by professional pilots. his is a name that pilots mentioned with reverence because he and his crew found a way when the center engine exploded to disable all their flight controls, found a way to fly an airplane that did not require the use of flight controls. And at one point, as they were making an emergency landing in Sioux City, Iowa, the controller said you can land on any runway and Captain Haynes on the radio: “Hell, you want to be particular, make it a runway? We'll be lucky if we can.” It was remembering him and his flight that I answered the way I did to Patrick Harden.
Rosenberg: That July 1989 flight that you described, United 232 from Denver to Chicago, as I understand it, the only way the crew could control the plane was by manipulating thrust, and they could only make right turns and again, that strikes me as an example of airmanship.
Sullenberger: Yeah. You know, there's a great debate now in aviation in other domains about the use of technology. And what's the most appropriate use? How much automation should be had? There are some people who think that we should have fewer pilots in the cockpit, only one, or two, or perhaps none. But I'll remind them that at least for now, technology can only do what has been foreseen and for which it's been programmed. And even though humans are often the least predictable part of any safety system, they are by far the most resilient and adaptable. They are the ones who can face a challenge they’ve never imagined, never trained for, get right the first time in less than three and a half minutes. They can take what they do know, adapt it, and apply it in a new way to solve the problem they'd never seen before.
Rosenberg: In fact, if I remember this, right, Sully, was Captain Haynes did was actually expand the team in the cockpit. He had three people total in the cockpit, but there was United Airlines check pilot in the main cabin, and Captain Haines invited him up, expanded the team to four and the four helped get that plane, that crippled plane to Sioux City.
Sullenberger: Absolutely. I'm impressed that you know that tale, that's that is one of the seminal lessons of that flight. In fact, that flight in some others is one of the ones that had led to us changing the cockpit culture in all airlines, particularly in this country, changing it for the good from the bad old days when captains were solo act, they were autocratic, often arrogant, did not listen to others. And of course, the accident rate sadly reflected that. And so, Captain Haines did something that was extraordinary for the time. You're right. He, he widened the circle. He used all his resources. He invited Captain Denis Fitch, who was a pastor of the cabin, a Czech pilot to come assist them. And that working together the four of them figured out a way to use differential thrust on the system. Remaining wing mounted engines to be able to get not only back to an airport, but actually to land it on a runway and saved or half the lives of people in the airplane. So, when, when I was helping to develop and implement the first leadership team building course called crew Resource Management at our airline, and I taught the very first such course in beta form at my airline, we used flight 232 and Captain Haynes and his crew as an exemplar of how one does lead in the crisis, of how the best led teams do work together and solve all the problems until they have solved them all or as many as they can.
Rosenberg: This was a subject that Malcolm Gladwell wrote about outliers, when he discussed in one chapter, a raft of accidents for Korean airlines, and how cockpit communications in that airline, in that culture were so stilted, and it was really the American model of cockpit communication that helped save Korean airlines.
Sullenberger: Not just an American model, but certainly a Western model. Certainly, North America, much of Europe, Australia, and New Zealand thought of as one of the most safe airlines in the world, they have not had a single fatality in the jet age. So, it's definitely a societal, culture factor in many of the airlines around the world that has to be overcome. So, what they essentially have to do is say, okay, in your culture, whatever it is, there may be societal norms that you'll live with outside the cockpit, but once you're in the cockpit, for safety's sake, this is what we must do, this is the culture we must have. And so, what we did was we flattened the hierarchy to a more appropriate level, we gave the captains the skills to make themselves more approachable. Some have said in our culture now that those who show empathy are weak. That's far from the truth. It requires great self-confidence and courage to care. And so, we gave these pilots and flight attendants in our courses the human skills, in addition to their technical or flying skills to make them more effective. We gave them the skills to be able to take a team of experts, and help them to create themselves as an expert team. And those are different skills, we made it about what is right, and not just who is right, we gave each member of the team not only the right to speak up, but the responsibility to speak up, we created a shared sense of responsibility among all the team members among the entire crew, for the outcome, and that working together, we could be much more effective as a team than as a collection of individuals. And that's especially important now. After the consolidation and the mergers in the airline where they're much bigger now, when they may have 15,000 pilots 50,000 flight attendants, what that means in practice is they fly all the time with complete strangers, with people that never met before. And so, one of the first things a captain must do is to build that team, to align goals, to open channels of communication to solicit input, to quickly form a team, so if something bad happens on that first bite together, they'll be as likely to successfully achieve their goals as it would normally develop over a period of days or weeks applying together, and that's what we would teach. Sully, let me take you to
Rosenberg: Sully, let me take you to January 15 2009. You're in your 29th year as a commercial airline pilot, or the captain of US Airways Flight 1549, and Airbus A 320rom LaGuardia Airport in New York to Charlotte. As the pilot, you're in the left seat, your first officer, Jeff Skiles, is in the right seat. This is the fourth day that you've flown with Mr. Skiles.
Sullenberger: I had met Jeff for the first time on Monday afternoon, January 12th, Just three days prior. I had never seen him before, we'd never flown together. What's interesting is that had you been allowed to sit in the observer seat in our cockpit on that flight to the river and watch Jeff and me work together, not that you would really have wanted to be there with us, I grant you, you would have thought that we had been working together like that for years because we were trained to such a high professional standard, because we knew so intimately our roles and responsibilities. We had become interchangeable. And so, one of the remarkable things about being a professional pilot is just that that we can fly with someone we'd never seen before, know the script so well, have so much knowledge, skill, and experience and judgment that we can do something people outside the industry would find it hard to understand. Jeff and I in a pressure cooker of an emergency where the time pressure and workload were so extreme, we were able to collaborate wordlessly. We didn't have time to talk about the whole situation, what had happened, and what we needed to do. I had to rely upon Jeff immediately and intuitively understanding this developer in crisis as I did, and on his own initiative, knowing what he should do to help me, and had he been a lot less experienced, he wouldn't have either known to do that or how to do that. But he also has 20,000 hours of flying time like I do, he had been a captain before on a different type of airplane before the cutbacks and layoffs it forced him into the right seat on the Airbus. And this was his first unsupervised trip on the Airbus having recently completed the initial classroom and simulator course in the week before on the same trip with a checker on it and an instructor in the captain's seat. So, this was his first trip without an instructor with him, but you wouldn't have known it because he was so prepared. What's amazing is that if you look at the cockpit voice recorder transcript, there are several times during the flight or you'll see Jeff make a suggestion or begin to do things without me taking the time because I didn't have time to direct his every action. It was this very carefully choreographed little ballet that we did, assisting, checking and cross checking each other, helping each other out. One point in particular, right before the landing, Jeff knew that the final critical maneuver was for me to judge the height at which to begin the landing. Again, like I said, we didn't have engine thrust, we were using gravity to provide the forward motion of the airplane, we were descending several times faster than one would normally descend to a normal landing runway. And knowing this, Jeff knew it'd be hard for me to judge the proper height to begin the landing, to start raising the nose, and trading some of our forward speed for our reduced rate descent, looking at this featureless water train ahead of us where depth perception is inherently difficult. So, on its own initiative, he began to call out to me in a cadence altitude as we descended in the airspeed, to help me judge that height. I didn't have time to tell him that. Someone with a lot less experience wouldn't have known to do that. That's just one example of how we were able to work together wordlessly in this extreme crisis.
Rosenberg: Sully, you lost both engines when the plane struck a flock of Canada geese. That is extraordinary, almost unheard of. Is that something you actually ever trained on?
Sullenberger: We had never trained for this scenario having dual engine lost at such a low altitude with so few options and so little time. But I had a paradigm in my mind. As shocking as this was, and it was shocking, the suddenness of the emergency--and these were large birds, the species Canada geese, they weigh eight or 10, sometimes 12 pounds, or the five or six-foot wingspan. And at least two birds went into the right engine and one or two into the left. Bird experts from the Smithsonian actually found DNA to try to identify how many individual animals we hit. And there were dents all over the leading edge of the wings in the nose from the flock of birds we struck, but the thrust loss was almost immediate. But even though it was so sudden and so shocking, within about two and a half seconds of the thrust loss, I was able to take, by memory, the first two remedial actions that we would eventually get to on our three page checklist: to turn on the engine ignition so that if the engines could recover they would, and to start the airplanes auxiliary power unit, the APU, which has its own electrical generator. And that's especially important in a fly by wire airplane like the Airbus where there's no longer a direct mechanical connection between the cockpit and the flight controls. Instead, there are flight control computers that interpret pilot commands, pilot inputs, and then send electrical impulses to actuators to move the airplane. So, it was imperative to not lose electrical power. And so even in this crisis, we began to take action very rapidly. And then of course, after that, we had to make the divert decision about where to land.
Rosenberg: But before you made the divert decision, as you said, just 10 seconds after the bird strike, you had started the auxiliary power unit. Other pilots I've talked to have said that that is much deeper on the checklist. The fact that you knew to do that, was, as they described it to me, extraordinary.
Sullenberger: Those decisions came very quickly and easily to me. For years, I had tried to imagine what some of the worst things that could happen to me in an airplane where and certainly dual engine loss would be one of them. And from my deep systems knowledge of the workings of all the airplane systems, I knew that the two things that I could do that would help me the most in that kind of situation were to turn on the engine ignition and start the APU. It was just intuitively obvious that those were the two steps one could take in that situation that would help the most and I needed them to be effective yesterday, not a minute later, when we would eventually get to them on the checklist. We were given a three-page checklist to use by Airbus by the airline. It was one that was designed to be used from 35,000 feet when you have 20 or 30 minutes to troubleshoot and get through it. Of course, we had three and a half minutes, less than three and a half minutes total to be landed. So, we got through the first page, we didn’t get through the whole three-page checklist.
Rosenberg: Sully, just two seconds after you started the auxiliary power unit, you said to Mr. Skiles: “my aircraft,” and he said immediately in response: “your aircraft.” What does that mean?
Sullenberger: That is essentially a contract a compact, and that shifts the roles and responsibilities between the pilot flying and the pilot monitoring whenever we're flying. There's always one of the two pilots who is designated as a pilot flying who is directly controlling and responsible for maintaining the optimum flight path and the other pilot is mine. During the situation, the environmental conditions, the status of the airplane systems, and also with the performance of the other pilot, the pilot flying in a mutual support situation. It's almost like having a wingman when you're flying jet fighters, and you have mutual support where you work together to, to help and to protect each other. It's a very similar construct. And so, by stating that, I want to emphasize that it's important to note that in this extreme crisis, Jeff and I verbalized verbatim the exact words we were required to use in that situation. When I said “my aircraft,” and Jeff said, “your aircraft,” I'm saying I'm becoming the pilot flying now I'm no longer the pilot monitoring. And that means that you're now the pilot monitoring, not the pilot flying, and so we switched roles and it's, it’s just an indication of how deeply internalized the human skills, the team skills are that we've learned, and not just the flying skills. That's one of the most critical things we can do right, is to make sure there's absolutely no doubt, is completely unambiguous about what the roles are, and which one of you is responsible for flying and flying it well, yet your entire focus is flying the airplane well,
Rosenberg: It seems to me that you had some extraordinarily bad luck. But it also seems to me that you had some extraordinarily good luck. Two things come to mind, the visibility was perfect, and you had water underneath you.
Sullenberger: That's true, and I think an even greater advantage, compared to many emergencies, we had the huge advantage of what I call a “relative lack of ambiguity.” In other words, the cause was apparent. We saw the birds about two and a half or three seconds before we struck them, but clearly not enough time to maneuver a large, heavy, fast jet airliner away from them. We felt and heard them strike the airplane. I could smell coming into the cabin air the burning bird odor from the engine a few seconds after the birds it struck them. So, I had confirmation of what I believe did happen. So, we didn't have to spend a lot of time saying what was that what happened? What is the emergency? And instead, go right into how do we fix this. So that was a huge advantage. I also had, like you said, a huge advantage that the snow had stopped earlier that day the visibility to improved I could see that river clearly. I knew from experience there were only three options. There are only two runways near us that conceivably might or might not be reachable. It turned out with reaction time that they were not. LaGuardia from which we had departed but at that point, we're headed directly away from it descending rapidly. Teterboro, across the river, a smaller general aviation, not an airline airport that I'd never been to, it turned out to be too far away also. And the only other place in the entire New York Metropolitan area that was long enough, wide enough, smooth enough even to attempt landing a large airliner was the Hudson River, the East River, of course, would have been filled with obstacles and bridges, the Hudson, pretty much out obstructed and there weren't even many boats on it. But I also do and this is one of those factors that was in the back of my mind, but that I didn't think about directly having visited the USS Intrepid museum before. I knew that that area of the Hudson where we were headed was the area where the ferries operated between Manhattan and Weehawken, New Jersey at their terminal. And that was the only place in the entire area where rescue could happen fast enough and such a frigid day, a day when the air temperature was low 20s and the water was just above freezing, and many people were going to be wet.
Rosenberg: You write about the general rules in an aircraft emergency, but rule number, one as you describe it, Sully, is fly the plane, and this case, and this seems counterintuitive to folks who are not pilots, that meant lowering the nose of the air craft to get proper glide speed.
Sullenberger: Yes, if the noses stayed up, we continued to slow down and eventually get to the point where we would lose lift and began to descend. And if we didn't correct it, this would end uncontrollably, so I had to lower the note to maintain the proper flying speed. That meant that we were going to be touching the water within a couple of minutes. And so, I was quickly trying to determine the best place and the only things had to happen in parallel not in series is I was talking to the air traffic controller, mentioning the possibility of returning to LaGuardia initially, then then ruling it out as he was trying to get it for us. And then subsequently, as I was considering Teterboro as an option, and the air traffic controller, Patrick Harten is trying to arrange that for us. I'm evaluating that options, worthiness, ultimately deciding that it was unreachable. And I thought I said, we're going to be in the Hudson, and Patrick Harten and our controller told me later that he assumed that by choosing to land in the river, he assumed that we would all perish, and it was an agonizing 45 minutes until he learned otherwise after we had landed,
Rosenberg: You wrote that to have zero thrust coming out of those engines was shocking, that the silence was shocking. But you weren't fearful. You had absolute focus and that turned out to be of great comfort to a woman named Theresa Hunsicker. She was the daughter of a pilot Richard Hazen, who died in the 1996 ValuJet crash in the Florida Everglades. And I found that story incredibly moving. What did Theresa ask you? And what did you tell her?
Sullenberger: Teresa had always been haunted and tormented by the thought that her father died in anguish and fear. And an investigator, Greg Feith, who worked that accident, a ValuJet that crashed in the Florida Everglades after an uncontrolled cargo fire destroyed their flight controls, told her no, that he had listened to the cockpit voice recorder, he knew that Captain Kubeck and first officer Hazen were doing their best to solve the problem. They're using the checklist, flying the airplane until they were no longer able to. But she didn't really believe it because he wasn't there, he hadn't been in that situation himself, personally. And so, she wrote to me and said that when she had heard me on the 60 Minutes interview, the first interview I'd done the month after the flight, and talked about, what I was thinking, what we were doing, that it gave her the presence of mind to know that that Greg was right, that her father didn't die in fear and anguish, that he died trying to save the passengers and crew. And that was a great comfort to her because I had been through that situation, I was able to tell her what it felt like. I was too busy. I didn't have or didn't even allow myself to have any extraneous thoughts any of those 208 seconds. I never thought once about my family. I didn’t even specifically think about the passengers, I just thought about flying the airplane flying it well and solving each of these problems in turn until we tell them all or solve as many as we could. It was my laser like focus, having the mental discipline to compartmentalize my mind, and not let the stress even as intense as it was further debilitating my ability to, to perceive, to decide to act.
Rosenberg: In 1944, the military purposefully landed a plane in the James River B24 in order to test how best to do that. And some of the lessons from that flight were that the nose had to be u,p that you had to have a level attitude, wings had to be level, and that the gear had to be up when you went into the water. Why, and did you manage to do all of that?
Sullenberger: Yes, and I think every pilot pretty much knows the basics that you land in the water gear up, not gear down. You want the nose to be just about the horizon, I was shooting for 10 degrees nose up. When we touched, I know we flight data recorder we got to 9.8 I think had we gotten to the end of the checklist I think it would have recommend that 11 degree notes up attitude per touchdown. But you know, it's it was important to keep the wings level also, zero degrees of panic.
Rosenberg: Why is it important for the wings to be level when you enter the water?
Sullenberger: So that we don't hit one wing first and turn the airplane rapidly violently around from side to side so that it decelerates straight ahead. And as it was, even though we touched nearly level, the left engine was ripped from its pylon, It's bound on the wing, and wasn't bound for several days later, but the airplane remained intact. In fact, I'm happy to say that unlike most airplanes that are sold for salvage after an accident, this one because of the obvious, historic significance, the airlines and the insurers worked together to preserve it and it's now In the Carolinas Aviation Museum in Charlotte, North Carolina, where it's on view to the public, they've done a pretty nice job of curating it, developing displays and making it part of the exhibit. We had a slight right wing down about one and a half degrees I believe. So just slightly right wing down when we touched from the flight data recorder data. So, we achieved the parameters that we needed to make this landing survivable about with no thrust, it was a hard landing. But the deceleration in the water, while rapid, was uniform, and based upon the forces that Jeff Skiles and I felt in the cockpit during the landing. Once we stopped in the water, it was apparent to us that the airplane was intact, it was stable, it was floating, and that people were probably still okay at that point. In the most amazing ways, and it's right before we began the evacuation, Jeff and I looked at each other and said at the same time in the same words, “well, that wasn't as bad as I thought.” We weren't high fiving, but it was an acknowledgment we had solved the first and the biggest problem today. Of course, we then still had to get 155 passengers and crew out of an airplane taking on water in our frigid River. But New York water by law operate, the ferries between Weehawken and Manhattan had from their Weehawken terminal, seen us approaching the river at low level. And without awaiting any official notification, they radioed their vessels to head toward us. And the first New York waterway theory arrived three minutes 55 seconds after it stopped. And by that time, I exited the airplane as the last person off there, the ferries were around us no rescue was well underway. And that was what it was essential that that happens so quickly on such a cold day.
Rosenberg: You were the last to leave the aircraft. As you mentioned, you made two sweeps through the cabin to try and ensure that all the passengers and crew had evacuated. When did you learn that everybody survived, and what was it like, waiting to learn that?
Sullenberger: Well, we weren't trained to do that. It just obvious to me that's what had to have happened. I felt like it was literally my job to make sure that everyone else was saved before I saved myself. So, I made it a point to be the last person off the airplane. I made it a point to be the last person out of a raft onto the ferry. It was about four hours before I learned officially that everyone was accounted for and it survived. And that was an agonizing wait. I kept trying to get account, but it was just impossible. People who are rescued were taken to both sides of the river. Some people have gone to hospital, some people have gone home, some gotten on an airplane and flown on to Charlotte. And it took a while to round them all up and account for them all. It was about 7:30 that night, about four hours after I landed, that I finally learned that everyone was accounted for one of our union pilot leaders came into the hospital where I was still being evaluated and said it's official 155. It felt as if the weight of the universe had been lifted off of my heart. But I was so emotionally spent I couldn't do any more than just feel relief.
Rosenberg: Right before you entered the water, you turned to Mr. Skiles and asked him if he had any ideas. And he responded, actually, I do not. I was struck by that. Why that question?
Sullenberger: You know, I talked to lots of audiences around the world, audiences as diverse as nuclear power operators, financial risk managers, a lot of medical audiences. And I was talking about this, to one of them medical audiences a few years ago, and one medical practitioner noted that exchange, and really was astute enough to, to realize how significant it was--that that's one of the things that Jeff and I were able to accomplish, that we're proud of stuff is that even before this emergency landing of a lifetime, we had the presence of mind to use those team skills that I used to teach, you know, to never give up, to always use all the resources to keep on trying to solve it, make it better, somehow. There's always one other action you might be able to take that might increase our success by a little bit. And so, when, when you look at the cockpit voice recorder transcript and you see it, I said to Jeff, right before landing “got any ideas?” Some think that that was a flippant remark, but of course it's not. And Jeff understood in that context exactly what I was asking him, which was I've done everything I can think of to do that would help us. Is there anything else you can think of that we can do that would help us be more successful by a fraction? And his answer was actually not. And he answered that way, just in a very casual matter of fact, why not because he was being in suicide or not because he was resigned to an electable fate--far from it. We were trying to save every life to the very end. He answered that way because at that point, he knew we had done all we could. And the fact that we had that exchange is just an indication of had deeply internalized these team skills are and that we could have it at that point, I think is one of the more remarkable things about this flight in this crew about, about how we were able to keep on trying to solve the problems to the very end. And so, that's for medical audiences, it's, it's that, you know, even if you're the top surgeon, you know, listen to others, take input, have your whole team help, you go around the table and say, “sir, what else can we do?” What, what might help? What, what action can we take?
Rosenberg: As we learned from Captain Al Haynes in the Sioux City accident?
Sullenberger: Yeah, exactly. Together, we can solve problems we can never solve as individuals.
Rosenberg: Speaking of the team now, you've spoken of the professionalism of Jeff Skiles. Would you mention your flight attendants as well please?
Sullenberger: Yes, I'm glad you asked: Donna Dent, Doreen Welsh, Sheila Dale, highly experienced, almost 40 years of flying each. Again, I had flown with one of them before, but the other two I had not. So, at the beginning of the trip, I had this crew briefing of the brief conversation that we talked about, that we used to teach, that we quickly built that team, to reinforce the things that were important to solicit the input, to create that shared sense of responsibility. And so, during the flight, the real challenge was the time pressure was so extreme, I had chance to make only one announcement and before I made what I knew would be the most important announcement of my career, one that would be scrutinized not only by investigators, but by other, other aviation professionals, other colleagues for years, I wanted to be very precise, and this a few words, but that would make the most difference.
So, in that one announcement to them, I said, I wanted to identify myself as the as a decision maker, I wanted to sound competent. And in our aviation vocabulary that's fairly well understood. We have certain single words that are rich with meaning. “Brace” is such a word. It signals to the flight attendants that an emergency landing is empty. And that they should help the passengers avoid injury during the landing so they'll be able to evacuate by shouting to them their commands. And then, in the spur of the moment, I chose another word that we were not been trained to use to try to give them passengers and cabin crew but it is a like, vivid image a word picture of what to expect that without engine thrust, we were going to be descending rapidly, it's gonna be a hard landing. I just didn't know how hard because Jeff and I had never done this before. So, I chose the word “impact” to give them that vivid image. I said “this is the captain. Brace for impact.” And even through that armored cockpit door that we now have, I could immediately hear the two flight attendants in the front of the cabin, Donna and Sheila and I'm sure during the back between the same begin shouting their commands in unison to the passengers, which was “brace, brace, brace, heads down, stay down, brace, brace, brace, heads down, stay down.” And hearing from them that day on that flight encouraged me, it comforted me to know that by saying the few coded words that I used, I had literally gotten my crew on the same page. And if I could find a way to deliver the aircraft to the surface intact, it would float long enough for them to evacuate the passengers at first to be rescued. And, and so they did their jobs, with no notice, very well under the most trying circumstances possible. And so, I think our flight is essentially proof positive. That all the things I tried to learn and become expert with and I taught for over 40 years really work in the real world, in real life, even in the most extreme emergency.
Rosenberg: So, you had the opportunity to listen to the cockpit voice recorder after your landing in the Hudson. Many pilots in accidents aren't there to listen to that recording. What was that like the first time you heard the recording of you and Jeff Skiles in the cockpit for that 208 second period?
Sullenberger: Well, for four months up to that point, we were relying only on our memories of the flight. And our memories were pretty accurate it turned out. Even before we heard the CVR ourselves for the first time in May of 2009, we had talked to our colleagues, investigators who had heard it, and they told us that our recollections that we had told investigators about in the first interviews turned out to be pretty accurate based upon the hearing of the recording that the investigators had listened to. But
when Jeff and I, at the NTSB headquarters at L’enfant Plaza in Washington, DC in May of 2009, heard the CVR for the first time ourselves, it was a very emotional experience, we were taken right back to that moment, even four months later. Our first impression was that even though we knew that 208 seconds was a very short period of time, less than three and a half minutes, in listening to it, it happened even faster than we would remember it happening. It was breathtaking to hear us and to know that we had been in the cockpit of that airliner over Manhattan at that low an altitude when we had lost thrust on both engines with so few options. It was just astonishing. And to hear it again, the, the roll back, the rundown of the, the engine turbans, the most sickening, “huuuuuh,” I remembered what it felt like the worst sickening pit of my stomach, you know, falling through the floor feeling when the airplane suddenly stopped climbing. It was like the forward momentum of the airplane nearly stopped in midair. It felt like the bottom had fallen out of our world. It sounded like our world was ending. But when we heard the whole recording, our impression was that we didn't sound overwhelmed or confused. We sounded busy. We got right down to business. We were focused. We were purposeful. We were intentional. We sounded good. And it was so emotionally draining to hear the CVR for the first time that after that first hearing, Jeff and I take a break and we walk down the hall, and as we did, I turned up and I said, “I'm so proud of you. You were right there with me every step of the way, every challenge, every response on the checklist, everything else. We did this together.” I said, “I know I've gotten most of the attention, in spite of my best efforts to remind everybody that this was a team effort. But I couldn't have done it without you, that we did this together.” And he said, “Thank you.”
Rosenberg: You had lived a very private life, a quiet life, dignified, and noble life as a fighter pilot, and as a commercial airline pilot. must be very odd to suddenly get all that attention.
Sullenberger: Yeah, and it happened so fast. I mean, Lori and our daughters, and I think of it in two parts, the trauma of the flight itself, or everybody on the airplane in their families. And then, the trauma of the immediate aftermath, when, I think about 45 minutes after landing when somebody had discovered my name, and the New York Times called my wife at home. And then there were satellite trucks around the house for 10 days. It was like drinking from a firehose, it. It was overwhelming. It required us to very quickly learn a new way of living this entirely new life it was, it required us to develop new skills and get better at once we did have to be able to be public figures in the world stage. It required us to grow, to become more complete versions of ourselves in order to be able to do that. It was hard. It required great effort and took time. It's still something that's a work in progress. It's not my natural temperament. I never wanted to see the spotlight, be the center of attention, but I felt an intense obligation to use it for good. And that's something that Jeff and I talked about.
Rosenberg: In fact, it's giving you an opportunity, Sully, to talk about leadership, to talk about civic duty, and responsibility about things that are, and always have been a part of your life that are very important to you.
Sullenberger: From my father who was a naval officer or to I learned about the responsibilities of the command, that a commander ultimately is responsible for every aspect of the welfare of those of those of us who care. And that will be to the leader who, through some lack of foresight or error in judgment, causes someone to be hurt unnecessarily. In other words, with great authority comes great responsibility. And so, I think, as citizens, we also have things that we owe to each other, we have responsibilities as citizens to each other, in spite of how it otherwise seems in this often a winner take all world. I think that, you know, the concept of citizenship arose in ancient Greece and Rome. And it's not just rights, it's also duties, and that if, if we didn't occasionally at least put our own immediate needs aside, and delay our gratification, and give each other these little gifts of civic behavior, civilization wouldn't be possible. Everyday activities we take for granted like driving down a two-lane highway would be suicidal if we didn't give each other these little gifts, civility. And I hope that's something that we can reconnect with, I think now more than ever, we have obligations to be civil, to be literate, to be scientifically literate. In other words, we have to remember what the purpose of science is, which is to provide humankind with a more complete and accurate understanding of reality. That sort of seemed like an important idea to me. In other words, you can't use data if you don't understand it. We must be capable of independent critical thought, we, we must get our information from reputable, credible sources, we must be informed voters. And when we make important decisions, we must make them based on facts, not fears or falsehoods, and certainly not on big lies, no matter how loudly and often they're told.
Rosenberg: You retired as a commercial airline pilot in 2010. Sally, your last flight was to Charlotte, North Carolina, was that by design?
Sullenberger: Well, sort of. I mean, I happened to be based in Charlotte at the time. And so that was where our trip ultimately ended. The--for my retirement flight over a year after the famous flight, when I first went back to work after the famous flight in the summer of 2009, I made it a point to fly again with our first officer from the famous flight Jeff Skiles. And on my last flight, my retirement flight, I made it a point to fly with Jeff and some of the passengers from our Hudson River flight bought tickets to be on my last flight that landed in Charlotte. So, it, it was a good way to, to finish what we had started, and it was great to fly with, with them again, and my wife Laurie came along on that flight too.
Rosenberg: Do you miss it?
Sullenberger: Well, flying is still a lifelong passion for me, I still fly privately, I do miss the professional rigor of being an airline pilot. I mean, it's not just the pilots. It's the whole system that we have created in which we operate that is so resilient, that is so professional. It's every aspect of it from the planning of the flight, to the servicing of the flight, the fueling of the airplane, the passenger loading, the flight attendants, I mean, every part of this must be in place, or they're not to be gaps, or systemic risks that are unmitigated, or lead conditions that aren't dealt with. So, it's hard in private aviation to duplicate the rigor of the entire professional airlines system. But the flying is still a lot of fun. I missed the, the performance of the airline airplanes and the quality of the design. I mean, there's just nothing is left to chance and there are redundancies for every redundancy. So, airline equipment is really the gold standard. So, I missed that part of it, but I, I don't miss the long days and the inevitable delays and
problems. Those were rewarding in their own way when you're able to solve them. And it's not always the big problems every day. There are little problems to resolve when you can resolve them quickly and efficiently and still get your passengers there on schedule. That's a real source of professional satisfaction.
Rosenberg: Sully, you started flying as a 16-year-old boy off of a grass airstrip in Sherman, Texas with an instructor named Lt. Cooke. And after your Flight 1549 into the Hudson, you got a note from his widow. He had passed away. But she wrote to you and what did she say?
Sullenberger: Lt. Cooke Jr's widow, Evelyn, wrote the very nice note and said that Lt. would be very proud. And that meant a lot to me.
Rosenberg: Your professionalism, your integrity, your experience your airmanship, mental a lot to a lot of people, not just the 155 souls on board your aircraft, but to their families and their friends, people who are alive today because of what you and Jeff Skiles did in that aircraft.
Sullenberger: I think I learned my lesson as well from Lt. and I never stopped learning them. And neither did Jeff, neither did Donna, Sheila, or Doreen. And I think that, as I said early on at one of the first passenger crew reunions, I think we will all be joined forever in our hearts and minds because of this experience that we've shared. We're in one way, I think we're similar to the, the crews of the US Navy warships at the end of World War II who had gone through so much together, shot, shared sacrifices that they haven't. They often had reunions for years afterward. And we just had our 10th reunion last January. We had our 11th reunion this January, and our 10th year before.
Rosenberg: Captain Chesley Burnett Sullenberger the third. Sully, thank you for your service to our nation, and for living a life of integrity, of duty, and honor.
Sullenberger: Well, Chuck, I think all those things about you and more. It's been an honor and privilege to speak with you today. Thank you for inviting me.
Rosenberg: Thank you, sir. Thanks to Sully Sullenberger for joining me on The Oath. Sully had an extraordinary career in the United States Airforce, and as a commercial pilot for three decades. And though he is best known for landing a crippled jet in the Hudson River in January of 2009, the story of his childhood, his success at the Airforce Academy, his passion for flying, and his remarkable dedication to his craft, that’s all part of his inspirational story. And Sully, although he would adamantly deny it, is an American Hero. A safe landing in the Hudson River was a very good ending for flight 1549, and is a very good ending for Season 3 of The Oath, but please bear with me for a moment—I have some cool things I want to share with you including a cool email from a listener. First, some numbers. You have downloaded out show more than 8 million times, more than 13,000 of you have contributed to our 5-star rating on Apple Podcasts, 5,000 of you have emailed us and shared ideas, thoughtful criticism, and generous encouragement. Your emails, all of which I read, made me smile, enlighten me, and made our show better. So, my heartfelt thanks to you for supporting The Oath. The goal has always been to have thoughtful and compelling conversations with fascinating people. And we know that our listeners are every bit as thoughtful and fascinating as our guests. Because this is the last episode of Season 3, I have some other people to thank. The Oath is a production of NBC News and MSNBC, but there are so many creative, brilliant, and talented young men and women. This podcast would not be possible without the executives at NBC and MSNBC, so thank you to Cesar Conde, Phil Griffin, Noah Oppenheim, and Jonathan Wald, Ali Zelenko, and Aaron Taylor, and the fabulous Elena Nachmanoff. And thanks to the NBC podcast department of Steve Lickteig and Allison Bailey. And to Fannie Cohen of FannieCo, and her marvelous team of Nic Bannon and Rob Hebert, who produce this podcast, and make me sound a lot better and a lot smarter than I actually am. Nor could we have reached so many listeners without the help of Tim Hubbell, Jori Robbins, Emily Passer, Olivia Cruser, Magdalena Hill, Lauren Begassi, Marie Dugo, Maria Sebastian, Gordon Miller, Julia Smith, Jesamyn Sam Go, Paul Rodrigues, Shyam Thampi, Bill Plowman, Rick Kern, Jake Wright, and Steve Doppelt. Kate Robbins Transcribed all of our episodes, and you can find those transcripts, you can see her good work at MSNBC.com/theoath. And thanks to all public servants, past and present, who worked in so many different ways, and in so many different places on behalf of our communities and our great country. These men and women took, abide, and honor their oath with their work and with their sacrifice. And speaking of that, I wanted to share, as I mentioned, an excerpt of an email we received from a listener who identified herself only as “Jane Doe Fed,” presumably a current federal law enforcement officer. She wrote: “When your podcast first debuted, I smiled at the title because it missed all the noise and chaos. I use my oath to remind myself why I’m here. Every morning before I begin working, I write my oath of office in a notebook that sits on my desk. A silly ritual, perhaps, but I like to start each day with the affirmation no matter what the day will bring me, my feet are planted firmly.” So, thank you, Jane Doe Fed, and thanks to the millions of others like you who serve with honor and integrity, and with your feet planted firmly. And finally, thanks to you, our listeners. Without you, there is no us. We work hard to bring you a great podcast, and we are grateful that you devote some of your precious time to us. We do the podcast for you, but we are keenly aware of the fact that we cannot do this podcast without you. So, please tell a friend or a family member about The Oath. As always, if you have any thoughtful criticism, feedback, or questions about this episode or others, please email us at email@example.com that’s all one word: firstname.lastname@example.org. We are working on Season 4 of The Oath and we hope to be back in late 2020 or early 2021. Please ensure that you are subscribed to that. We will see you again soon. In the meantime, be well and safe. This is The Oath with Chuck Rosenberg, thank you so very much for listening.