Member Spotlight: Capt. “Sully” Sullenberger

by Janean Flowe
Capt. Sully Sullenberger

He’s perhaps best known for his heroic display of skill and control when he safely landed a passenger plane on the Hudson River on Jan. 15, 2009, saving all 155 passengers and crew aboard. A speaker, author and safety advocate, Capt. “Sully” Sullenberger shares a bit of his life and experience with AAA Members.

What inspired you to become an airline pilot?

I knew I wanted to fly at age 5. My family lived near an Air Force base and I loved seeing the jets fly over our house. I couldn’t wait until I learned to fly at 16. My first flying lesson was a realization of a years-long dream. Freeing myself from the ground, seeing everything on the earth become small and fall away was tantalizing. Feeling the controls in my hand and learning to master the machine was joyous. After earning my private pilot license and commercial pilot license in high school, I became a flight instructor while a cadet at the U.S. Air Force Academy, and after graduation, became a U.S.A.F. fighter pilot. After I completed my Air Force service, I became an airline pilot to fly big passenger jets.

What were your first thoughts on that day in 2009 when you realized the flock of geese had disabled both engines?

I knew immediately that this was going to be the biggest challenge of my life, one of the worst days of my life. As is typical in such situations, my first thought was one of disbelief, “This can’t be happening.” But from the very outset, even though we had never specifically envisioned or trained for this situation, I was confident that my crew and I could find a way to solve all the many serious problems we faced until we had either solved them all or solved as many as we could, enough to survive.

What helped me was having paid close attention to precisely managing the total energy, the speed and altitude, of large jets for thousands of hours of flight, and being able to very quickly determine how far we could glide at that low altitude and therefore which options were possible and which were not.

Can you share a little bit about your advocacy work with airline safety?

As a result of the sudden worldwide acclaim in 2009, I knew that I could not walk away, that I had an obligation to use this new bully pulpit for good. And that is an obligation I still feel. I have testified before Congress many times including last year about the Boeing 737 MAX, and I have lent my expertise to the crafting of safety legislation in the U.S. House and Senate. As your advocate for your safety when you fly, I am not done yet!

When you travel with your family, where are your favorite places to go?

As an airline pilot and as a frequent airline passenger now, I have always enjoyed going someplace I’ve never been. It can be exciting seeing a place for the first time, and discovering things I didn’t know about it. Some of our favorite destinations are Vancouver, British Columbia, Jackson Hole, Wyoming and Hawaii.

What AAA member benefits do you use most often?

The AAA hotel discount is my most frequently used benefit. But AAA roadside assistance provides great peace of mind.

As my wife Lorrie and I have traveled during the last 11 years since the famous flight, we have made it a point to visit military bases and hospitals and meet the dedicated men and women who have chosen to serve our nation in the armed forces. My parents were of what we call the Greatest Generation, who by doing their duty saved the world from fascism. But Lorrie and I have seen firsthand how each succeeding generation has the same devotion to duty. We’re in good hands.

(Go Magazine Sept-Oct 2020)

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