I remember where I was on January 15, 2009 when US Airways Flight 1549 ditched in the Hudson River just outside New York. I was sophomore in high school waiting for my Physics class to start, when I checked an aviation website I frequented. I read that a US Airways Airbus A320 from New York-LaGuardia to Charlotte hit a flock of geese, knocking out both CFM56 turbofans. When the LaGuardia ATC controller provided options to either go back to LaGuardia or land in Teterboro in New Jersey, Captain Chesley B. Sullenberger simply responded, “We can’t do it…we’re gonna be in the Hudson.” I remember thinking that there was no way everyone would survive exposure to the icy waters of the Hudson. But they did…everyone survived.
As the news cycle continued, we started to hear about Captain Sullenberger. The former Air Force fighter pilot had been at what became US Airways since 1980. In addition to his experience, he assisted the National Transportation Safety Board in several aviation accidents, served as an Air Safety Chairman for the Air Line Pilots Association, and was working on a training course in Crew Resource Management for US Airways. His use of CRM techniques and quick thinking (he asked to have the APU started, even though it wasn’t on the dual engine flameout checklist) led to no lives being lost on “Cactus 1549,” and it quickly thrust him into the limelight.
“Sully,” as he has been referred to, was the talk of the nation. He received several awards, and even wrote a memoir of his life. He spoke at several events, calling for improvements in aviation safety. In a Senate hearing a little over a month after Cactus 1549, Sully and First Officer Jeffrey B. Skiles both testified that experience is what counts in saving lives on airliners. Skiles mentioned that the minimum standards by airlines for hiring new pilots in 2009 was much more lax than when he was hired. This, and the crash of Colgan Air Flight 3407, led to airline regulations increasing the minimum number of flight hours a potential airline pilot can have to 1,500 hours.
In the same Senate hearing, Sully mentioned that in the turbulent 2000s, he saw his salary cut significantly, and his pension essentially eliminated. He saw many pilots cease to recommend careers in aviation for their children, and that this would result in potentially highly qualified pilots not going into the industry. He saw a competitive salary as crucial to hiring the best and brightest pilots in the world.
And yet, people in the aviation industry complain about Sully and what he did after Cactus 1549. As I was preparing to write this article, my fellow columnists and I were messaging each other back and forth about how Cactus 1549 has changed the aviation industry. My colleagues brought up that Sully’s advocacy for crew rest and minimum experience has effectively created a pilot shortage amongst American carriers, and limited salary potential. Some wonder why Sully gained so much stardom, while First Officer Skiles, who played just as important a role in saving lives on Cactus 1549, has stayed relatively anonymous amongst the general public.
Here’s something to remember about Sully: he has spent his career as an airline pilot specializing in aviation safety. Most of his work to improve the safety of the passengers he and his fellow airmen carried was done behind the scenes. After Cactus 1549 brought him into the spotlight, Sully used the platform he was given to advocate for something he was passionate about. We can argue all day about the pros and cons of his perspective on aviation safety. What we should all agree on is that Captain Sullenberger and First Officer Skiles saved lives on January 15, 2009 through training and quick thinking, and that Sully shouldn’t be judged by armchair aviation buffs like me for advocating for his passion.