Capt. Chesley B. "Sully" Sullenberger: the hero of US Air Flight 1549

Until yesterday, if I was asked who was my favorite superhero, I would have answered without any doubt Spider Man.

However, the images of an Airbus 320 floating in the Hudson River with the last passengers escaping from the hatches while the majority of them were waiting for rescues on the wings, made me think that, from Jan 15 2009, there’s another superhero “operating” in New York City.

As Spider Man has done hundreds times on the Marvel strips, the new hero has saved many people when everything seemed to lead to a catastrophic event: this superhero was piloting an Airbus 320 with a Load Factor next to 100%, full of fuel, at low altitude during the most critical part of the flight when he experienced something that is at least rare in Aviation: a dual engine flame out after multiple birdstrikes.

Furthermore, he was overflying one of the most densely populated area of the world with the responsibility of 155 lives. As Spider Man, he succeeded. He performed a perfect maneuver. His name is CHESLEY B. “SULLY” SULLENBERGER.

Pilots can’t train to ditch an aircraft because ditching effects on the aircraft can’t be predicted. So he’s a hero not only because he outstandingly did what he was trained to do but because, thanks to his experience, he coped with something that is almost unpredictable. He applied all the main Best Practices for that kind of situation: land parallel to the swells with the gear up to minimize drag with water and prevent nose down momentum tha the landing gear would induce and make a “soft touchdown”.

Not only did he showcase AIRMANSHIP landing the aircraft safely under pressure, after the aircraft came to a rest, he guided the evacuation and he checked the aircraft cabin twice (while it was sinking) to ensure that there was nobody left behind. As someone claimed: “he epitomized the ‘service before self’ concept”.

Obviously his experience and his know how in aviation safety has helped. This 57-year-old captain is a former F-4 pilot with 40 years of flying experience, and has been working for US Air since 1980.

He is President and CEO of Safety Reliability Methods Inc., a company he founded to provide emergency management, safety strategies and performance monitoring to the aviation industry. For sure, he was the right pilot in the right place. His resume can be found on both LinkedIn and on his company’s website: According to it, “he has served as an instructor and Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA) safety chairman, accident investigator and national technical committee member. He has participated in several USAF and National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) accident investigations. His ALPA safety work led to the development of a Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) Advisory Circular. Working with National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) scientists, he coauthored a paper on error inducing contexts in aviation. He was instrumental in the development and implementation of the Crew Resource Management (CRM) course used at his airline and has taught the course to hundreds of his colleagues. Sully is a graduate of the U.S. Air Force Academy (B.S.), Purdue University (M.S.) and the University of Northern Colorado (M.A.). He was a speaker on two panels at the High Reliability Organizations (HRO) 2007 International Conference in Deauville, France May 29-31, 2007. He has just been named a Visiting Scholar at the University of California, Berkeley“.

Obviously he was also lucky and this is important as well.

Even if the failure unfolded in such a way the AWE1549 flight could end in a disaster, other surrounding conditions were ideal: just think to the presence of the river (not sea, with waves, but a calm river) nearby, to the shipping traffic in that part of the Hudson that was able to intervene in a few minutes, to the weather conditions that were good, to the cockpit crew that assisted Capt. Sullenberger. Passengers were lucky too since they found a superior pilot in the cockpit and Flight Attendants that where perfectly trained and helped them escape the aircraft.

Image credit: via


About David Cenciotti
David Cenciotti is a journalist based in Rome, Italy. He is the Founder and Editor of “The Aviationist”, one of the world’s most famous and read military aviation blogs. Since 1996, he has written for major worldwide magazines, including Air Forces Monthly, Combat Aircraft, and many others, covering aviation, defense, war, industry, intelligence, crime and cyberwar. He has reported from the U.S., Europe, Australia and Syria, and flown several combat planes with different air forces. He is a former 2nd Lt. of the Italian Air Force, a private pilot and a graduate in Computer Engineering. He has written five books and contributed to many more ones.


  1. Ho appreso ciò che è accaduto dai telegiornali…Non potrei non fare i complimenti al Capt. Chesley B. “Sully” Sullenberger, pilota di esperienza che oltre ad aver portato a terra il proprio velivolo, è riuscito ad evitare una sciagura, la quale avrebbe coinvolto non solo i passeggeri del volo US Air Flight 1549, ma anche i residenti delle abitazioni sottostanti.

  2. Well now that the media blitz has calmed I’ll have a few moments to comment about US Airways flight 1549. My first thoughts as I expressed on ABS news were that the odds are against two engines being taken out by a bird strike. Living in south Florida we see that most of the migratory water fowl are here along with the rest of the snow birds. If all things are as they appear the crew of flight 1549: ; Capt. Chesley B. “Sully” Sullenberger, FO Jeff Skiles and cabin crew did an outstanding job. The US Airways pilot maintained their professionalism in spite of having their wages ravaged and pension stripped in bankruptcy court due to lack of protection of the workers by the government.

    It was game day for Capt Sully; we train our entire careers for these emergency procedures and hope we never have one. On board the computer screens must have lit up like a Christmas tree, horns, bells and whistles were all very distracting as Capt. Sully command the configuration of the aircraft and piloted the aircraft dead stick into the water. He did a highly professional job that made all airline pilots proud of him that day.

    As well as being an airline pilot I’m also a Sea plane pilot and can tell you that the Hudson in daylight is ideal for a water landing. Open water or darkness could have changed the result drastically. Due to a combination of luck and skill everyone on board flight 1549 are here today to talk about it. When I say luck its not to take away from the wonderful job they did. It’s just you can perform a textbook “Ditching” in the North Atlantic and nobody would survive due to hypothermia. In the North Atlantic the water is very cold and it would take many hours for rescuers to arrive.

    An Airline Pilot’s status has been degraded in the last 20years by eroding wages, general lack of respect and the taking for granted the fact that we do such a good job that people think it’s easy to navigate an airliner from point ”A” to “B” safely. We have become the brunt of Jay Leno’s jokes because of bad press due alcohol abuse by a very few (much less than any other profession). Mr. Leno could not help but comment the night of the accident that it’s amazing what a pilot can do when he is sober. Which I thought was in very poor taste. Mr. Leno you owe Capt Sully and the rest of the professional airline pilots an apology for that. Its only during life threatening times that the public seems to appreciate the job professional airline pilots do every day.

    Thanks Capt. Chesley B. “Sully” Sullenberger, FO Jeff Skiles and cabin crew for doing a job that all airline crews can be proud of.

  3. Good Job Captain Sully,
    We learn with you

  4. Hi Ivan,
    thank you for your comment. I completely agree with you: it was a combination of luck and skill. As a private pilot I was “shocked” by the quick response of Capt. Sully, who decided for the ditching rather than attempting a landing on a short airstrip (Teterboro). I’m pretty sure that the first thing I would think in such a challenging situation is to go feet dry and try to land in spite of the overrun instead of attempting a ditching. I think that the successful ditching of the US Air 1549 could be a lesson also for those pilots that in the future could be required to decide in a second whether to land on the ground or to try a textbook ditching.

  5. Way to go. You have given pride to a great name. I would like to meet you as there are not many of us around with this name. I live in Redding, Ca and am retired AF. Hope to hear from you. Chesley

Comments are closed.