Wednesday, May 23, 2018
Events

Interview: Before visiting St. Pete, Capt. Sully Sullenberger talks Miracle on the Hudson anniversary, movie

Nothing about the date clicked with Capt. Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger when he accepted an invitation to visit St. Petersburg on Jan. 15.

But eight years ago Sunday, Sullenberger piloted a crippled US Airways flight to a safe water landing on New York's Hudson River. Maybe you saw the movie.

Yes, the "Miracle on the Hudson" briefly slipped Sullenberger's mind.

"At the time I was just looking at the calendar and was available on that day," Sullenberger, 65, said by telephone. "So I just said go ahead, that works. I was more in the details of making the event work than recognizing immediately the significance of that date."

Doesn't that sound so Sully? Putting others first, getting the job done. Someone deserving of Tom Hanks playing him on screen.

Sullenberger talked with the Times about the anniversary of a miracle, what he wishes Clint Eastwood's movie did better and "the importance of our common humanity," which he'll speak about Sunday at the Mahaffey Theater.

 

Do you and (wife) Lorrie usually mark the landing's anniversary?

We don't go out of our way to celebrate it ourselves. That's not how we think of it, especially as each year passes. I get daily reminders about the flight. It's not like we go for weeks without thinking about it. I can't. It's not that I necessarily want to. Even if I wanted to, every time someone sees me in a grocery store or a restaurant they give me the gift of their gratitude. It's a reminder of what happened that day.

 

Was there a moment during the landing when the magnitude of what you were attempting became clear?

In the first few seconds I understood exactly the risks we were facing. I understood the gravity of the situation, so to speak. Pardon the pun.

As we were gliding toward the river I knew this was a real life-changing event … an emergency unlike any challenge I'd ever faced in an airplane. That was apparent to me immediately: This is going to be the hardest thing I've ever done and the worst day of my life.

 

Mass media is often how history is recalled. What about Eastwood's movie would be a wrong answer on a test someday?

I'm glad you put the question that way. I encouraged (the filmmakers) to tell the story accurately because film is the historical record. … It was palpable on the set, feeling that sense of responsibility they had.

 

But were National Transportation Safety Board investigators really as antagonistic toward you as the movie depicts?

While the investigators themselves were not individually antagonistic, the process inherently is. Each of these entities, even (the Federal Aviation Administration) has their own interests to protect, their own agenda. Part of the scope of the investigation is to find all of the contributing causes and factors.

I do wish in making the film that they had made the investigation more nuanced. We never felt like any individual was out to get us. But (co-pilot) Jeff (Skiles) and I and others clearly understood that our professional reputations were on the line, that this could turn out very badly for us unless every thought we had, every choice I made, every action we took was perfect. It was their job to find fault with it.

 

What does such an extraordinary experience lend to your presentations?

I remind people that we never know what tomorrow might bring. No one does. We can't. But we have a personal obligation and a civic duty to prepare ourselves for whatever may come. We have a duty to be good citizens.

In spite of what some think and say in this often winner-take-all world, part of being a citizen is that there are things we owe to each other. There really are times when we need to put our needs aside, delay our gratification.

Give each other these little gifts of civic behavior, civic virtue. Doing that is what makes civilization possible.

Contact Steve Persall at [email protected] or (727) 893-8365. Follow @StevePersall.

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