'Sully' Shares Story Of Crash On Hudson

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WASHINGTON-The name of Chesley Sullenberger entered America's and the world's awareness on Jan. 15, 2009. But the skills and talents that made "Sully" so famous were learned much earlier than that.

Sullenberger, the captain who famously landed US Air Flight 1549 on the Hudson River after losing both engines due to a bird strike, told CUNA's GAC that when five people sat inside the Washington headquarters of the National Transportation Safety Board and listened to the cockpit tapes, one of them remarked, "This captain has been training for this his whole life."

That person was right, Sullenberger told credit unions-but only after warming them up by letting them know he was a 30-year CU member himself. Sullenberger credited his mother for giving him two gifts-a love of reading and a love of learning-and his father for growing up during the Depression and fighting in World War II and for living through extraordinary circumstances.

Sullenberger credited the military-he was an Air Force fighter pilot-for instilling in him that "it's no longer about me, it's about us." He said members of the military today "deserve all the respect we can give," exemplifying "values the vast majority of us get to think of as an abstraction."

"I learned in the Academy the power of leading by personal example," said Sullenberger. "I was fortunate to find my life's passion early on-when I was five years old I knew I would fly. When you love what you do, you become more passionate; you become an expert. It's not just you who benefits but society that benefits."

Sullenberger reviewed his own work to change the "cockpit culture" and make flying safer-he has a consulting company that focuses on such issues-but what his audience really wanted to hear was what he described as "having had 20,000 hours in the air and never knowing which three minutes and twenty-eight seconds on which my entire career would be judged."

A number of computer-generated videos are available that recreate the morning of Jan. 15, one of which was played before he spoke to the meeting.

"I saw the birds about one and a half seconds before they hit; we were traveling about 360 feet per second. These were big birds-Canadian geese-and I could feel the hits and thuds as they hit just below the cockpit windows and as they hit the wings," Sullenberger recalled. "I felt as if the bottom had dropped out of our world. I also can remember my blood pressure spiking, but then I did three things that made a great deal of difference First, I forced calm on myself. Second, I imposed order on what could have been chaos. I had never trained for the enormity of the problem, so I established clear priorities. And third, because of the extreme time pressure on workflow, I realized we would not be able to do all the things you're supposed to do. So I decided to do the important things and do them well."

Sullenberger noted he had only met his co-pilot, Jeff Skiles three days earlier, and that the crew had had just a three-minute meeting prior to departure.

Sullenberger shared that in the rapid descent as he was mentally calculating all possibilities-pilots do not even train for water landings-he was unable to tell the cabin crew what was happening. (After the last contact, the air traffic controller was convinced he had been the last person to speak to the crew and was distraught for 45 minutes before being informed the plane had landed on the river and all had survived.)

Sullenberger credited his co-pilot for shifting priorities and calling out altitude and speed right up until the nose settled into the water. "The most amazing coincidence was we both looked at each other afterward and said, 'well, that wasn't as bad as I thought.'" Sullenberger said landing was just the first crisis, the next was evacuating the passengers, and he credited both the passengers and the flight attendants for remaining cool and orderly. He said it was four hours before he learned all 155 passengers were accounted for.

"In every encounter with another person we have the opportunity to do good, to do ill or to act with indifference," said Sullenberger. "It's up to each of us. At the end of our lives I think we all have to ask, 'Did I make a difference?' My wish for you is that your answer is yes."

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