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This is your Captain Speaking

Q & A: Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger


Photography by Cody Pickens

Ernest Hemingway once called courage “grace under pressure.” If you subscribe to that definition, you’ll be hard-pressed to find a more courageous person than Captain Chesley Sullenberger. “Sully” became famous in January 2009, when he successfully executed an emergency landing of crippled U.S. Airways Flight 1549 in the Hudson River, saving all 155 people aboard the plane.

Almost as notable as the skill Sullenberger showed that day is the grace with which he handled the ensuing media onslaught. He emerged as an articulate, authoritative presence, taking the glare of the spotlight and turning it into an opportunity to do good, testifying before Congress about the difficult conditions under which commercial airline pilots work today.

In the three years since, things have barely slowed down for Sullenberger. In addition to keeping a full slate of speaking engagements, he is involved in activism for several causes, most notably aviation and patient safety. The Danville resident has also written two books: The first, Highest Duty, is a memoir for which the film rights have been optioned. The second, Making a Difference, released on May 15, is Sullenberger’s examination of leadership. He interviewed 11 public figures, including Admiral Thad Allen, who managed the cleanup of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina; Tammy Duckworth, an Army helicopter pilot who lost both legs when she was shot down in Iraq and later ran for Congress; and Sue Sheridan, who became a powerful patient advocate after medical errors led to her son’s brain damage and her husband’s death from cancer. In these interviews, Sullenberger examines what qualities make for a true leader and how each of us can learn to live up to the same high standards.

When Diablo talked with Sullenberger in mid-April, his voice was hoarse from recording the audio book introduction to Making a Difference, but he spoke about the book, and many other subjects in the engaging, thoughtful manner for which he has become famous.

Q: Tell me about the idea of the book and why you were interested in leadership.

A: Leadership is something I’ve been interested in my entire professional life. My father, who was a naval officer, clearly understood how a commander is responsible for every aspect of the welfare of the people in his care. It’s a responsibility I came to understand when I became an airline captain.

It was a natural genesis to think at the airline, How do we do this? Especially at a large airline: You’re flying sometimes with people that you’ve never met before, and when you start a four-day trip at the beginning of the week, how do you quickly take this collection of individuals and form an effective team? If something bad happens on the very first takeoff, you have a much better chance of handling it successfully as a team than you would as a collection of individuals. I’d seen, when I was a second officer and when I was a first officer, people I’d flown with who were captains whom I admired and respected. Over the years, I decided there were two characteristics that they had. One was that they cared about their profession and their responsibilities. The second was that they paid attention along the way, throughout their whole careers. They were continuous learners. They didn’t repeat the same hour 20,000 times in the air; they tried to make each flight better than the previous one.

What really sets organizations apart, those that are successful and do really well, ultimately comes down to leadership, having your core values, and then acting in concert with them, making your actions match your words. And creating a culture, an environment of mutual respect, in which people can feel trust, can feel a joint sense of responsibility for the outcome, and can do their best work.

It’s those kinds of things I talk about in the book—that plus moral courage, which is always something I’ve cared about and I’ve seen exhibited in a variety of arenas, like testifying before Congress, or things nobody ever sees, but where people do the right thing even when it’s not easy or convenient for them. Those are the things that have impressed me.

Q: How did you decide whom to interview?
A: I wanted to have a real eclectic mix across multiple domains: economics, finance, law enforcement, the military, space exploration, public policy, government service, medicine. I wanted to choose some people who were well-known, but perhaps their stories hadn’t been told as fully in this regard before. I also wanted some people you’ve never heard of who became leaders sort of by accident and had never really thought of themselves that way, but had been living their lives in such a way that when this opportunity or great need came, they were able to rise to the occasion, and they chose to use it for good.

Q: Whom were you most impressed with?
A: Oh gosh, I have a hard time picking a favorite song or a favorite restaurant. There are so many facets to each of these stories. Of course, one of them is Sue Sheridan’s. She told me a stunning anecdote about when her daughter, Mackenzie, was born. Just like when her son, Cal [who suffered from severe jaundice, which went untreated and led to a rare form of brain damage], was born, Mackenzie was jaundiced. But Sue had a plan in place, and she said that Mackenzie would be tested. She was in the 100th percentile [on the Bilirubin test for jaundice], so the doctor put her under the lights, and she began to improve immediately. After that experience, Sue took the first shower that she’d had a chance to take after giving birth. She was in the shower so long and crying so loudly that the staff sent in a female chaplain to check on her. When Sue came out of the shower, the chaplain said to her, “I understand you’re really worried about your daughter.” Sue said, “No, I’m not worried at all about my daughter. I’m just seeing how easy it was to solve this problem, to test her: That’s all they had to do for my son.”

Q: That’s quite a stomach punch.
A: It is. Then, in the Thad Allen chapter, where he is assigned to clean up the mess, literally, after Katrina, and he stands up on a desk with a megaphone and he tells them two things that make all the difference. It’s just the essence of what he lived his life to be able to do: having the right values and having empathy and compassion.

Q: It seems those were the key elements in being a leader.
A: Then, Gene Kranz [the NASA flight director who led the effort to save the Apollo 13 astronauts] says, and I agree, that you have to check your ego at the door. This can’t be about making yourself successful; it has to be about doing it for the group, furthering the goals of the organization.

Q: That’s interesting because you received the lion’s share of the credit after the Hudson River landing.
A: I knew that I was receiving almost all the attention, to the exclusion of my crew, the New York waterway vessels and their crews that rescued us, the first responders, and many others. So, I’ve made great efforts ever since then, for three years now, to remind people that this was not just about one person, that there were other people who deserved recognition, who deserve thanks.

But I failed utterly. It’s trying to empty the ocean with a teaspoon. That wasn’t what people wanted to hear. I still begin all my talks mentioning the crew by name, and how much they contributed. At the same time, I decided early on that I couldn’t reject people’s thanks and gratitude. I clearly understood how this amazing event resonated with people around the world, how it touched people in a very individual, very personal way, and how it gave them hope in a very dark time in the world’s history, when it seemed like everything was going wrong and nobody could do the right thing. And I understood my part in that. I had responsibility to the story, to treat it with respect and not to tell them that they weren’t entitled to feel the way that they did.

When this group of people came together and saved lives, it renewed people’s faith in humanity to some extent, gave them hope again.


Q: Some would argue that you’ve been celebrated as a hero simply for doing your job. Did that thought ever occur to you?  
A: I actually said that. I used those words initially, that we were doing the job that we were trained to do. But my opinion of that has changed with the passage of time. I think, early on, many people thought of this as a crash landing, and it really wasn’t. It was a well-executed emergency landing on water. I also think that, while my crew and I and others did their jobs, we did our jobs exceptionally well, and we went above and beyond what could have been expected under those circumstances. At first, by saying that we were just doing our jobs, I kind of shortchanged our professions, and I kind of shortchanged the important responsibilities that we had.

Q: Obviously, you stood out as a leader in your field and in that moment. But does it strike you as strange that people would want you to lead in other fields by, say, running for office?
A: It did not surprise me. I think people want to be reassured that human nature can basically be good. And in late 2008, early 2009, there were people who had begun to doubt that; to some extent, it didn’t seem like people were doing good. So, when this group of people came together and made good and saved people’s lives, it renewed people’s faith in humanity to some extent, gave them hope again. People need reminders about that kind of thing. I also think that courage is contagious or can be.

Q: Has the way you’re looked at now changed how you live your life?
A: My life, and the lives of my family and my crew, the passengers and their families, changed instantly in that moment—if not completely, certainly a lot, and if not forever, certainly for a long time. I think that my life and my family’s life changed more than anyone else’s because we were in the center of this maelstrom. And it was absolutely traumatic, overwhelming: I mean like having the world’s biggest fire hose pointed at you for at least a year and a half.
My wife and I had to very quickly learn to be able to fulfill these new roles as public figures. We had to be confident enough and articulate enough to be interviewed, to represent my profession and the charities we cared about for a long time. At the same time, we worked very hard; as much as we had to grow and learn, and as steep as the learning curve was, we also tried not to let it change who we are, the core of our values.

Q: How hard was it to keep from changing?
A: I think I had a couple of advantages. First, this happened to me when I was 57, almost 58, so I was a mature adult. I had a lot of life experience to help me put this in perspective. My wife and I are educated. I’m literate; I’ve naturally been intellectually curious my entire life. I’m a voracious reader; I’ve always read a lot about things I either enjoyed reading about or I thought were important, and that was a tremendous advantage in facing this new challenge. I also had lived my life in kind of a thoughtful, considered way, in that not only was education important to my family and me, but ideas were important. I had pretty much figured out what I thought about a lot of things well before this.
Having this real foundation was a base upon which to build everything else very quickly. Just the enormity of it, to be suddenly thrust into the spotlight and go from complete anonymity to one of the most famous people on the planet. Words cannot describe the intensity of it.

But it also represented, ultimately, opportunities. [Copilot Jeff Skiles] and I, early on, when we first figured out that, unlike most stories, this one wasn’t going to fade away anytime soon, felt an intense obligation and responsibility to our colleagues, to our profession, to advocate for them, and if we didn’t, it would be letting them down. That became a passion and a new mission in life, and that mission continues. That gave us a real sense of purpose about this whole thing.

Q: Is the advocacy work you’ve done the thing you’re proudest of?
A: Well, I’m certainly proud that we didn’t lose anybody that day, that we had such a good outcome, but yes, I would say that, probably.

I was becoming a consultant before all this happened. I had spoken at an international conference in 2007 on these kinds of things and applying aviation methods to other domains, including medicine, and I approached the management at my airline in July of 2008, six months before the Hudson River landing, about working with them and their safety department to make us safer and more productive, better, to improve the culture. At first, the top execs were somewhat interested and enthusiastic. But then they decided they weren’t going to do any big initiatives, and nothing ever came of it. At the very end of that conversation with our COO, at the headquarters in Arizona in July of 2008, I said to him, “You know, I’m proud of a lot of things I’ve done in my career: I helped change the cockpit culture of my airline in the early ’90s, when we introduced our Crew Resource Management course, teaching captains to be better leaders and their crews to be better followers.” But I said, “If I’m lucky, if I work hard enough, and fortune smiles on me, it may be that my greatest contribution still lies ahead, as a consultant,” and of course fast-forward to 2009, and now I feel the same way about life after 1549.

We felt an intense obligation and responsibility to our colleagues, to our profession, to advocate for them, and if we didn’t, it would be letting them down.


Q: Are you still close with the crew from Flight 1549?
A: I’m certainly very close to Jeff Skiles. After an experience like that, I think people become joined, form a bond almost like brothers, and we’ll continue that forever. We also keep in touch with the passengers. There are a number of passengers that I see or hear from on a regular basis.

Q: What’s that relationship like? They must feel so indebted to you.
A: Well, they do. They feel, obviously, a sense of gratitude. We feel the closeness of having shared this incredible event, and we’ve become friends in our own right since then.
We have a big Christmas card list, and I keep trying to add to it as I get more addresses. But it’s interesting because the passengers, among themselves, always identify themselves not only by their name but by their seat assignment because that determined not only who they were around, but to some extent whether they were in the back or the front, and what experiences they had that day.

Q: Do you still get the celebrity treatment here in Danville?
A: Yeah. It comes with the territory. I’ve had to learn how to deal with that, too, and still be able to go out with my family in public. There are some times where at dinner I have to say no; this is family time, you understand. But it’s all good; it’s what fuels these opportunities: people’s connection with this story, what I call the enduring power of this story to inspire and touch people.

Q: Now, it looks like there’s going to be a movie telling your story.
A: Yes, the first book, Highest Duty, has been optioned, and it’s in the hands of some really talented veteran filmmakers. My wife and I met with them a couple of times, and I’ve seen a couple of scripts, and I think they’re going to do a great job. I’ve had a lot of input so far to try to make it more accurate and better, and they’ve been very receptive. I’m happy about that.

Q: Anything else?
A: I’m looking forward to seeing everybody at book signings and telling them about this book. 


See Sully


May 21

Lafayette Veteran’s
Memorial Building
6:30 p.m., 3780 Mt. Diablo Blvd., Lafayette.

May 25

Rakestraw Books
7 p.m., 522 Hartz Ave, Danville.

May 31

Read Booksellers
7 p.m., 3630 Blackhawk Plaza Cir., Danville.

June 6

7 p.m., 2400 Monument Blvd., Concord.


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