The voice over the radio was calm and distinct: “We’re gonna be in the Hudson.” Moments later US Airways Flight 1549 splash landed in the frigid river. Capt. Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger, the man who spoke these words, emerged on stage at Wednesday’s General Session to a standing ovation and launched into a discussion about heroism and why he believed he had the right stuff on that cold January day last year.
Sullenberger told attendees that the two necessary ingredients of his success were education and service. Education has always been important for Sullenberger, and desire for it was instilled in him by his family. He told of how his four grandparents, born at the twilight of the 19th century, accomplished a particularly striking feat: they all graduated from college. He told of how his mother, a first grade teacher, planted a love of reading and learning in him as a boy. He noted how education allows people to learn from the mistakes of others so they don’t have to learn the hard way.
“That’s particularly true of my profession: we simply can’t live long enough to make all the mistakes ourselves,” he said. Sullenberger noted that learning today isn’t just an academic exercise, it’s economically vital in today’s information-driven world.
Sullenberger next spoke of his parents, both part of “The Greatest Generation,” who faced down The Depression and World War II, to explain the virtues of discipline, self sacrifice, and service he learned from them, and which he drew on, during the Hudson River landing. “They, too, said they were ordinary people who found themselves in extraordinary circumstances,” he told the audience. “They also said that they were just doing their jobs. But as we now know through the long lens of history that by just doing their jobs, they saved the world.”
Sullenberger, along with his copilot Jeff Skiles, saved the lives of all 155 people on board the plane that day because of their commitment to their profession and the people placed in their care. “I was a regular guy who had done a pretty good job of preparing himself for whatever might come.” On that day, preparation made perfect. He and Skiles were able to control the fear rising up in them—the definition of courage, according to Sullenberger. “Fear is normal. Fear is human,” he said. “Courage is the discipline and the realistic confidence to do what is required in spite of fear.”
What was particularly striking to Sullenberger is how he and his crew’s “Miracle on the Hudson” uplifted the nation. In the midst of a deep recession and the nagging fear that American competency was in decline, Sullenberger and his crew’s quick thinking and courage gave people faith. “It was seen as life affirming,” he said.
Letters flooded his home from every continent, even from a research scientist in Antarctica. “We’ve achieved Santa Claus status,” Sullenberger joked about the burden that his fame placed on his mailman.
Sullenberger is also not one for false modesty. “We did do our jobs exceptionally well,” he said. But he expounded the point that doing a good job day-in and day-out only occurs when the individual feels the necessary drive, discipline, and duty to perform their job to the best of their ability. For Sullenberger, what occurred that day was no miracle, it was the product of a lifetime spent preparing himself for the unexpected. For Sullenberger, it was a clear illustration of why professionals’ mastery of their craft matters and how it can inspire others.
Since being thrust into the spotlight—although he says “it was lack of thrust” that accomplished that feat—Sullenberger told attendees that he tries to use his newfound influence to better the world. He says past Medal of Honor recipients have set examples he intends to follow. “They will… tell you that in many cases the act that earned them the medal was actually the easier part,” he said. “In turns out the more difficult part was living everyday in such a way that everyone remembers truly what the medal stands for.” Sullenberger has become an outspoken advocate for aviation safety and his former comrades in the cockpit.
In an interview with Security Management afterward, Sullenberger addressed his concerns about aviation safety. He believes the training that helped him land Flight 1549 in the Hudson should be the rule, not the exception. Yet he believes that training cutbacks will occur. In the past, he said, the airlines always chose to exceed the necessary regulatory requirements set by the federal government. But in today’s economic environment, some airlines have begun to shave down their safety requirements to just above the federal requirements. While Sullenberger said cost considerations have always won out over safety concerns, he fears safety will become a distant second.
“We’re seeing them more closely approach these rock-bottom minimum standards that we never got that close to before, certainly not in my experience,” he told Security Management. “And so now we have our annual training. We used to do it twice a year, now we do it once a year.”
Cost cutting has also migrated to pilot salaries. Because of pay and cost cutting, Sullenberger worries commercial aviation won’t attract the best and brightest talent to keep the industry’s impeccable safety record.
Between the Hudson splash landing and his retirement, Sullenberger accepted a 40 percent pay cut and lost his pension. He says entry-level, regional pilots now earn only in the mid-$20,000 range even though they’re given incredible responsibility. He is also concerned that pilots have become seen as bus drivers because of the outstanding safety record of commercial aviation, although he believes pilots have received much more appreciation after Flight 1549’s safe landing.
During his speech, Sullenberger reminded the audience of the dangerous majesty of flight, and pilots’ control over life and death. “When we go up in an airliner,” he said, “what we’re really doing is pushing a tube filled with people through the upper reaches of our atmosphere, seven miles or more above the earth, at 80 percent of the speed of sound, in a hostile environment with outside temperatures to -70 degrees Fahrenheit, and we must return safely to the surface every single time.”
In that environment, getting it right isn’t just dollars and cents, its flesh and blood. The same can be true of security.