Patricia Sheridan's Breakfast With ... Capt. Chesley 'Sully' Sullenberger
"Brace for impact" are words no pilot ever wants to utter, but after a stellar career as both a fighter and commercial airline pilot, Capt. Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger had no alternative as he made an emergency landing of US Airways Flight 1549 on the Hudson River, saving everyone on board. After the 2009 accident, which was caused by a bird strike, he retired and became a best-selling-author with his book "Highest Duty." His second book, "Making a Difference: Stories of Vision and Courage from America's Leaders," is available now. Capt. Sullenberger was in Pittsburgh last month as the guest speaker of the DuPont Fatality Prevention Forum.
By the time you gave the command, "Brace for impact," were you confident everything was going to be OK?
I was confident that I could find a way to solve the problem. I was confident even though this was something we'd never specifically trained for. It's still not possible in our flight simulators to practice a water landing. If you land anywhere other than a runway, the simulator thinks you've crashed. Believe it or not, the only training we'd gotten and pilots in this country still get for a water landing is a theoretical classroom discussion. In spite of the fact that we were descending very rapidly -- we were coming down at the rate of two floors per second -- I had to judge very quickly and very accurately, looking at this featureless water terrain in front of us, the river, the height at which to begin raising the nose for landing.
But how did you know it would float?
I was confident that I could deliver the airplane to the surface in a way that would keep it intact. If it was in one piece then it would float long enough for us to be rescued.
From what I read, you had to keep the wings perfectly level.
Yes, and we know from the digital flight data recorder that I got very close to that.
In all your time as a pilot, had anything come close to this experience?
No, no not even close. It had been 29 years since I had been a fighter pilot and done extreme maneuvers and had been challenged in any way in an airplane. This was very suddenly, instantly, a challenge of a lifetime. I knew it. I knew how bad it was and what this meant for us immediately.
You have talked about feeling the physical change in your body at that instant.
I was aware of that also. It was the biggest shock of my life. I mean, the startle factor when you are suddenly confronted with something so life-threatening is huge and it really does interfere with your ability to process what's going on. It's marginally debilitating.
I was aware of my blood pressure, my pulse spiking, shooting up. I sensed my perceptional field narrow, you know, the tunnel vision that you get from sudden, life-threatening stress. I had a lifetime of training and a very disciplined approach to my professional responsibilities. ... It required great effort.
Do you think part of your ability to focus was your personality?
Perhaps. I think, like many professions to get to the higher levels is somewhat of a self-selecting process. Certain types of people with certain attitudes and skills tend to gravitate toward those kinds of careers more than others. I think the training we get and the experiences we have tend to make us more that way.
We had only 208 seconds from the time we hit the birds and lost thrust in the engines until we landed. That is just under 3 1/2 minutes. So it was incredibly intense. We didn't have time to do everything we really needed to do. We should do only the most important things but do them very, very well. I had the discipline to ignore everything else.
Once you took control of the plane, was there any conversation between you and your co-pilot, Jeff Skiles?
The work load and the time pressure were so extreme that my first officer and I never had time to have a conversation about any of this.
I had to rely upon him immediately and intuitively to understand this unfolding situation as I did and knowing what he needed to do. He is also a highly experienced pilot. He has 20,000 hours of flying time like I do.
Late in the flight, he did something very insightful. He knew it was critical to judge the height at which it was critical to begin raising the nose for landing. If we did it too soon, we would lose lift on the wings and hit hard. If I waited too late -- and I am talking fractions of a second -- we would not be able to reduce our rate of descent enough. He knew he needed to help me judge that height so he began to call out air speed and altitude to assist me in that final, critical judgment. Some seconds before we touched down, I did say to Jeff, "Got any ideas?" He said, "Actually not."
Did you dream about it?
I did some. The first weeks and months there was some of that, but not any more at all. I think I slept maybe an hour or two that first night. We were all greatly affected by PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder). I had distracted thinking. I would try to read a newspaper and end up trying to reread the same sentence five times and then giving up.
I couldn't shut my mind off, especially late at night -- all the what if-ing and second guessing, wondering if we had made the right choices. We didn't know for several months until the investigators had looked at all the data to say that yes, we were right. We could not have made it back to a runway. The river really was the only viable option.
Would cockpit design have made any difference to the outcome of the emergency landing? Do you think there should be a standard design for commercial airlines?
Not in this case, I don't think. There certainly are big differences in the design philosophy and the kinds of cockpits the major manufacturers have created. Boeing and Airbus, which are now the two largest, have taken very different approaches.
We have to realize we operate in a human and technology system and each must do their part well. We must assign appropriate roles to the technology and to the human pilots and make sure it works well in normal conditions and in emergency and abnormal conditions so that crews can quickly and effectively intervene when things go horribly wrong.
I know you have retired but do you still pilot your own plane or others?
I don't own a plane, but I've been able to rent some nice airplanes to use for short-range business trips and for family trips. I do enjoy it. It's something that is very convenient and still gives me a lot of satisfaction. Airplanes are really amazing and fun machines. That part of it I still love. It has been a lifelong passion, literally, since I was 5 years old. I read everything I could. It really was an absorbing passion to know as much about it and be the most complete, expert pilot I could.
Do you think flying is as safe today with all the cuts as it was when you first became a pilot?
It is much more safe. We have done so many things right over the last 30 or 40 years. We have made commercial aviation in many parts of the world ultrasafe. The last passenger fatality on a large U.S. jet airliner was in November 2001, so it's been over a decade.
Now it's not true of the regional carriers. They have not yet achieved what we call "one level of safety" across the board. That is not to say there isn't much work to be done. We have gotten to the point where we can no longer define safety solely as the absence of accidents. We have to go beyond that and be more proactive and not just wait until we have killed someone to begin to make changes.
Right now, in some important ways, we are not doing the best that we know how to do. The air travel industry is under such great cost pressure. It's so competitive. I mean, they are literally taking less water on the airplane to make it lighter to burn less fuel. They are taking blankets and pillows off the airplanes to make it lighter and less costly to have to clean them. They are making the seats closer together to cram more people in to make it more profitable. In many ways, the pilot's training is now at the absolute regulatory minimum.
Everything is being affected by cost. I wish we did a better job of realizing there is a strong business case for quality and safety in anything but the shortest term. Safety always pays for itself. Building quality and safety into the culture of your organization saves money in the long run.
First Published November 19, 2012 12:00 am