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.