Whatever Happened To Captain Sully?

by Seth Millstein

In 2009, a US Airways flight hit lost power mid-air and went careening toward New York City. But disaster was averted when the pilot, Captain Chesley Sullenberger, or "Captain Sully," made a heroic last-minute landing on the Hudson River, saving the lives of all 155 passengers and countless civilians in the area. “Captain Sully,” as he’s affectionately called, was praised for his quick-thinking and technical expertise in pulling off what’s now known as “Miracle on the Hudson.” So, whatever happened to that guy?

What was the story with that plane, again?

In January 2009, US Airways Flight 1549 was departing to Seattle from New York when suddenly, during its ascent, it collided with a flock of Canadian Geese. This took out both engines, and the plane started plummeting. Sully took the wheel from his first officer and initially attempted to make an emergency landing at nearby Teterboro Airport in New Jersey. But he soon realized that was impossible, and informed air traffic controllers that “we’re gonna be in the Hudson.”

Air traffic control probably feared the worst — but Sully proceeded to pull off a textbook emergency landing in the frigid water (it was one of the coldest days of the year). The plane floated for a while as rescue crews arrived, and despite the fact that some passengers had to be rescued from underwater after the plane started sinking, everybody survived.

Whoa. So Sully single-handedly saved everybody, huh?

Well, not exactly. First of all, the entire crew of the flight performed admirably, including the other pilot on board, Jeffrey Skiles, and the flight attendants. All of them were awarded the Master’s Medal by the Guild of Air Pilots and Air Navigators — and all were also invited to attend Barack Obama’s inauguration as president, which took place a few days after the crash.

Also, some pilots have pointed out that, while Sully’s actions were certainly very commendable, the maneuver wasn’t actually all that difficult by piloting standards. As Patrick Smith, author of Cockpit Confidential, wrote:

[T]he nuts and bolts of gliding into water aren’t especially difficult. The common sense of water landings is one of the reasons pilots don’t even train for them in simulators. Another reason is that having to land in water will always be the byproduct of something inherently more serious—a fire, multiple engine failures, or some other catastrophic malfunction. That is the crux of the emergency, not the resultant landing.

Sully, to his credit, has been modest about his performance and rejects the suggestion that he’s a hero.

My wife actually looked it up in the dictionary. We decided between ourselves that it describes someone who chooses to put himself at risk to save another. That didn’t quite fit my situation, which was thrust upon me suddenly. Certainly, my crew and I were up to the task. But I’m not sure it quite crosses the threshold of heroism.

But we should still celebrate him, right?

Well, of course. He saved a bunch of people’s lives, and seems like a pretty swell guy in general.

What did he do after landing that plane?

Sully retired from US Airways in 2010, made an appearance at the Super Bowl, filmed a commercial for the St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, and threw out the first pitch at a Yankees game. He was also absolved of the late fee he owed a California library for a book he’d accidentally left on the fated aircraft, and even had a cocktail, The Sully, named after him. (It’s two shots of Grey Goose and a splash of water — get it?)

Nick Laham/Getty Images Sport/Getty Images

On the slightly more substantive side, Sully wrote two books: A memoir called Highest Duty about his time as a pilot, and Making a Difference, about leadership. He also started a safety consulting company and gives speech on aviation safety — that is, when he’s not at his gig as CBS News’ resident aviation and safety expert.

Let’s drink to Sully — and if you happen to have some Grey Goose nearby, you can make that drink a Sully, too!

Image credits: Getty, Natural Balance Pet Foods