Sully: My Search for What Really Matters

"Sullenberger's ail-American life story is so compelling that it screams to be required reading for all young people, or anybody else who needs confirmation that courage, dignity, and extraordinary competence can still be found in this land.... A remarkable life story."

Washington Times

"It's no big surprise that Sullenberger's book—a gripping and genuinely heartwarming account of the splashdown—manages to portray everyone involved as more heroic than himself. . . . Sullenberger's account of Flight 1549 is a Capraesque ode to American competence and decency.... The book includes details that add a compelling new dimension to the tale." 

New York Daily News

"As demonstrated by the subtitle, [Sully has] been intent on using his newfound fame to promote his own code: doing things well, doing them right, the way he did the day he used a lifetime of knowledge to find a way to safety, his written description of the feat of flying those hundred fifty passengers to safety."

San Francisco Chronicle

"Books by unlikely heroes who hit the front page always suspect. But as Sullenberger grows from a five-year-old who wants to fly planes, to a fighter pilot, to a fifty-seven-year-old 'gray-haired man with my hands on the controls of an Airbus A320 over Manhattan,' it's clear there's a story here to tell. . . . Sullenberger speaks frankly of the toll the public spotlight has taken on his marriage, as well as the difficulties he and his family have endured throughout his commercial aviation career. Zaslow's contributions should not be overlooked; as with Randy Pausch's The Last Lecture, he invisibly assists Sullenberger in going beyond the moment that sparks readers' interest. . . . The result is as dramatic as it is inspirational."

Publishers Weekly (*starred review*)

"Sullenberger has emerged as an appealingly modest, straightforward guy, a demeanor maintained here in his easygoing, no-frills account of his Texas boyhood, his early infatuation with flying, his years at the Air Force, Academy, his peacetime military career, and his experiences as a commercial pilot, where safety procedures became somewhat of a specialty.... Valuable for anyone interested in how a life lived with integrity prepares a man for the ultimate challenge."

Kirkus Reviews

"Sullenberger's account of gliding his crippled jetliner down safely onto the Hudson River is a wingdinger... . The tone is gently folksy first-person. . . . Sullenberger comes across as an honorable, courageous man." 

Cleveland Plain Dealer

"One of the remarkable facets to emerge about Sullenberger was his prior professional activity to improve flight crew performance during emergencies, which echoes Winston Churchill's famous remark in The Gathering Storm (1948) about saving Britain in 1940 'that all my past life had been but a preparation for this hour and for this trial.' . . . This memoir-drama imparts insights about the piloting professional as it enthralls readers with its exultant plotline of disaster averted."

"Interwoven with experiences in various places are many stories about the life lessons he learned along the way and his urge to make a difference when he had a chance to I enjoyed his linkage of family and flying and how much a family can suffer from the wear and tear when a dad and husband are often gone. However, Sully relates many touching family incidents with his girls and wife, Lorrie, and how precious spending time with them has been. . . . Don't miss reading this one—Sully's story is great. His humbleness is noteworthy."

Times Record News (Wichita Falls, Texas)

"This is exactly the kind of book you would expect the now legendary Sully Sullenberger to write. In his memoir, the pilot of US Airways Flight 1549, which set down so memorably on the Hudson River in January [2009], is earnest, controlled, and exacting. Sullenberger is not prone to flights of fancy—in fact, he is the very pilot you'd choose for the job if you had any say in it. His book reflects the same qualities."




I am used to it now. I open a letter and five one-dollar bills fall out. "Mr. Sullenberger, Great job! Fd like to buy you a beer, albeit a cheap domestic one."

A fax arrives: "In this crazy world, it's good to know that chance still favors the prepared mind. Good job, Captain!"

A letter comes with an illustration of Snoopy in an exhilarated dance pose. The caption: "Oh Happy Day!" The letter writer is a woman from New Jersey. "We on the East Coast are still scarred by 9/11. It seemed all in the tristate area lost a family member, a friend, a neighbor, a coworker. Your splash in the river made us feel elated, serene, and happy!"

I have gotten thousands of messages such as these since Flight 1549. I have received ten thousand e-mails from people who tracked down my safety consulting business online. Another five thousand e-mails arrived at my personal e-mail address. I don't know much about Facebook, but my kids tell me I have more than 635,000 fans there.

I've heard from people on every continent except Antarctica. And almost every time I'm at the mall or in a restaurant, strangers come up to say they don't mean to bother me, but they just want to say thank you.

While a few of these correspondents had loved ones or friends on Flight 1549, the vast majority did not. What happened on that airplane touched them deeply enough that they felt compelled to reach out to me and my family. Some tell me that after hearing about our flight, they found themselves reflecting on a seminal moment in their own lives or thinking about a person who inspired them. Others ended up reviewing the dreams they had for their children or feeling renewed grief about losses they're still trying to understand.

I have become a recipient of people's reflections because I am now the public face of an unexpectedly uplifting moment that continues to resonate. Hearing from so many people, paying attention to their stories—that's part of my new job.

I've come to see their thankfulness as a generous gift, and I don't want to diminish their kind words by denying them. Though it made me uncomfortable at first, I've made a decision to graciously accept people's thanks. At the same time I don't strive to take it as my own. I recognize that I have been given a role to play, and maybe some good can happen as a result.

It's not a role that I had ever experienced before.

I spent a lifetime being anonymous. I was proud of my wife, proud of my kids, but I lived a quiet home life. My work life was also mostly hidden, conducted on the other side of a locked cockpit door.

But now I am recognized everywhere, and I have people coming up to me with tears in their eyes. They're not sure why they're crying. Their feelings about what the flight represents, and then the surprise of meeting me, just cause a swell of emotions. When people seem so grateful to me, my foremost feeling is that I don't deserve this attention or their effusive thanks. I feel like a bit of an impostor. And yet, I also feel I have an obligation not to disappoint them. I don't want to dismiss their gratitude or suggest that they shouldn't feel the way they do.

Of course, I'm still not comfortable with the "hero" mantle. As Lorrie likes to say, a hero is someone who risks his life running into a burning building. Flight 1549 was different, because it was thrust upon me and my crewT. We did our best, we turned to our training, we made good decisions, we didn't give up, we valued every life on that plane—and we had a good outcome. I don't know that "heroic" describes that. It's more that we had a philosophy of life, and we applied it to the things we did that day, and the things we did on a lot of days leading up to it.

As I see it, rather than an act of heroism, that philosophy is what people are responding to.

They also embraced news of Flight 1549 because it came at a moment when a lot of people were feeling pretty low.

On January 15, 2009, the day of our flight, the world was in transition. The presidency of the United States was about to change hands, which had some people feeling hopeful and others feeling nervous about the road ahead. It was a time of great uncertainty, with two wars and the world economy falling apart. On a lot of fronts, people felt confused and fearful. They wondered if we as a society had lost our way or gotten off track. Some people had been questioning even our basic competence.

They heard about Flight 1549 and it was unlike most stories they learn of through the media, in that the news continued to be good. The plane had landed safely. Passengers and rescuers had reached out and helped one another. Everyone on the plane had lived. It was all positive news (unless of course you owned or insured that Airbus A320—-then the news wasn't as completely upbeat).

For people watching reports of Flight 1549 on their televisions, this felt remarkable. It enabled them to reassure themselves that all the ideals that we believe in are true, even if they're not always evident. They decided that the American character still exists, that what we think our country stands for is still there.

I've come to have a greater appreciation of life— and of America, too—through my interactions with so many people since the event. They say they were touched by my story, but so very often I am even more touched by theirs.

When flight 1549 landed in the Hudson, eighty-four-year-old Herman Bomze watched the rescue from his thirtieth-floor Manhattan apartment overlooking the river.

Mr. Bomze, a retired marine and civil engineer, found himself feeling very moved as passengers scurried into their rafts and onto the wings. He was concerned that all the passengers hadn't made it out of the plane. He worried the ferries wouldn't get to everyone in time. He called his daughter, Bracha Nechama, and left her a voice mail to tell her how it affected him. She in turn sent a letter telling me his story.

In 1939, when Herman was fifteen years old, he, his sister, and his parents were living in Vienna and trying desperately to get out of Austria. Because they were Jewish, their apartment had been ransacked by Nazis. They knew of the mass deportations of Jews and had heard the rumors of mass murder.

Herman's family hoped to come to the United States, where relatives lived and were willing to sign paperwork vouching for them. In those days, the United States had strict quotas on how many European refugees could be admitted. At the U.S. embassy in Vienna, the family was told that only three visas were available—for Herman, his mother, and his sister. Because Herman's father had a Polish passport, and there were different quotas for Poles, there would be no visa for him.

"Please," Herman's mother pleaded. "Let our family stay together."

"You can stay together if you'd like," the embassy clerk told them. "If you want to stay here in Austria, you can be together. If the three of you want to go, you can go. It's your choice."

The family made a decision. Herman's father would stay behind. Herman, his sister, and his mother would escape to the United States, where life would be safer for them. The three of them arrived here in August 1939, and not long after that, Herman's father was transported to Buchenwald concentration camp. He was murdered there in February 1940.

Almost seventy years later, Herman watched the rescue of Flight 1549 unfold, and it was, in part, these difficult memories that compelled him to call his daughter, Bracha. Afterward, Bracha continued to think about the connections between me and her father, and she reached out to me with her letter.

She wrote of Herman's great reverence for life, forged through the Holocaust. She also wrote that her father was lucky that our flight found safety in the river, as opposed to crashing into buildings in Manhattan.

"Had you not been so skilled and such a lover of life," she wrote, "my father or others like him, in their sky-high buildings, could have perished along with your passengers. As a Holocaust survivor, my father taught me that to save a life is to save the world."

She explained to me the Jewish view that if you save one person, you never know what he or she might go on to accomplish, or how his or her progeny might contribute to peace and healing in the world. "May you know the joy of having saved generations of people," Bracha wrote, "allowing them the possibility of humanitarianism such as yours,  bless you, Captain Sullenberger."

Her letter continues to move and inspire me. I feel honored that she viewed the landing of the plane in the Hudson as "a powerful commitment to life." She's right: I don't know the good things still to be accomplished by the 154 people on my flight. I can't fathom what contributions might be made to the world by their children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren yet to be born.

There were those who wrote to say they agreed with me: I am not a hero. I appreciated the ways they spoke to me. They wrote to say that preparation and diligence are not the same as heroism.

"In your interviews, you seemed uncomfortable being called a hero," wrote Paul Kellen of Medford, Massachusetts. "I also found the title inappropriate. I see a hero as electing to enter a dangerous situation for a higher purpose, and you were not given a choice. That is not to say you are not a man of virtue, but I see your virtue arising from your choices at other times. It is clear you take your professional responsibilities seriously. It is clear that many of the choices in your life prepared you for that moment when your engines failed.

"There are people among us who are ethical, responsible, and diligent. I think there are many of them. You might have toiled in obscurity were it not for an ill-timed meeting with a flock of birds.

"I hope your story encourages those many others who toil in obscurity to know that their reward is simple—they will be ready if the test comes. I do not mean to diminish your achievement. I just want to point out that when the challenge sounded, you had thoroughly prepared yourself. I hope your story encourages others to imitation."

I heard from more than a few people who lost loved ones in accidents, or who survived accidents themselves. Some of these tragedies involved airplanes.

People wrote of how they had found the courage to return to flying, mostly because they had resolved to trust the professionals in the cockpit.

Karen Kaiser Clark of St. Paul, Minnesota, wrote to me about Delta Air Lines Flight 191, which crashed in Dallas on August 2,1985, "taking the lives of 139 people, each with a family, a circle of friends, and a place in the world no one could replace. It was wind shear, and my mom, Kate, was among the last seven identified. Her fifteen friends were also killed. Just five months prior, we had taken our father off life support. This was her first venture as a widow."

In the wake of the tragedy, Karen said, she was able to find a path to acceptance and a new appreciation for life. "Following Mom's funeral in Florida," she wrote, "we flew with her ashes and Dad's to inter them in Toledo, Ohio. However, our flight was caught in horrible turbulence. We were all terrified, but in those moments I vowed that if we were able to land, I would find a way to (1) grow through these terrible times and not become bitter, and (2) continue to fly, as I lecture internationally."

Bart Simon, who owns a hair-products company in Cleveland, told me he was on USAir Flight 405 when it attempted takeoff from LaGuardia on the night of March 22, 1992, and crashed in Flushing Bay. "I was one of the lucky ones who walked away with just a small cut on my head," Bart wrote. Twenty-seven people died, and nine of the twenty-three other survivors had serious injuries. The National Transportation Safety Board later said the probable causes were ice on the wings, failures of the FAA and the airline industry to have appropriate procedures regarding icing and delays, and the flight crew's decision to take off without knowing for sure that the wings were free of ice.

"I had been successful in putting that evening out of my mind and getting on with my life," Bart told me, "but the pictures of your landing last month and the similarity of the circumstances—US Airways, LaGuardia, the water—brought the memories rushing back." He wrote that when he watched our crew on TV, it seemed as if we epitomized what passengers hope to find when they board flights: professionals who are "cool, calm, and most of all, in command, no matter how dire the circumstances." He said he was writing to say thanks "on behalf of the millions of us who entrust our lives to you and your fellow pilots every year."

He had boarded a plane out of LaGuardia bound for Cleveland the very morning after that 1992 crash. "The charred remains of Flight 405 were clearly visible in Flushing Bay as my plane taxied by, but I left that morning calm in the knowledge that a skilled professional was at the controls, and that in a short time I would be back home." 

As pilots, we sometimes sense that passengers have no awareness of us. It's as if they're just pushing their way past the cockpit, looking for space in the overhead compartments. But in the wake of Flight 1549, I've been able to hear from people such as Karen Kaiser Clark and Bart Simon, and it is humbling to contemplate the faith and trust that they and others like them have placed in us.

Theresa Hunsicker, who runs a day-care center in Louisiana, learned about Flight 1549 while watching Fox News. A forty-three-year-old mother of a nine-year-old girl, she saw me on 60 Minutes and felt compelled to write about how my interview had affected her.

"My name is Theresa Hunsicker," her letter began, "and I am the daughter of Richard Hazen, who was the copilot of Valujet 592. It went down in the Florida Everglades on May 11, 1996, with 110 people on board."

Flight 592 had taken off from Miami International Airport, headed for Atlanta, with Captain Candalyn Kubeck at the controls. About six minutes into the flight, she and First Officer Hazen reported fire in the plane's interior and smoke in the cockpit. On the cockpit recording, a female voice is heard shouting from the cabin: "Fire, fire, fire, fire!"

First Officer Hazen radioed to the controller, asking to return to the airport. A few minutes later, traveling at five hundred miles per hour, it crashed in the Everglades. The plane was destroyed on impact.

An investigation revealed that the jet was carrying chemical oxygen generators in its cargo compartment, which likely started or fueled the fire. The oxygen generators had been labeled "empty," and did not have protective shipping caps that could have prevented the fire. The legacy of Flight 592 is that smoke detectors and fire-extinguishing systems are now placed in cargo holds, and changes have been made in how hazardous materials are transported.

In her letter to me, Theresa wrote that she cried watching news reports of Flight 1549. She was reminded of how much she had wished that her father's flight could have had the same positive outcome—a safe water landing. She wished that he and the 109 others on his DC-9-32 could have made their way onto the plane's wings, or into slide rafts in the water of the Everglades.

"I had wondered for many years what my dad's final minutes were like," Theresa wrote. "I had assumed he was full of fear, and regret that he would never see his family again. The thought of him dying in a moment of panic and sadness was overwhelming for me."

Greg Feith, the lead investigator with the National Transportation Safety Board, had told her that her dad's focus would have been on landing the plane. The investigator's words had been somewhat reassuring to her. But in the thirteen years since, she was unable to fully embrace them, because the investigator had never been in a cockpit of a plane in great distress. How could he know what a pilot was truly thinking in such a horrible moment?

That's why my appearance on 60 Minutes was so meaningful to Theresa. She heard me explain that I had no extraneous thoughts once we lost those engines over New York. My mind never wandered. I was thinking only of how Jeff and I could get Flight 1549 to safety. My comments provided her with an epiphany of sorts.

"To hear you say how focused you were, and that you had a job to do ... it gives me peace of mind, because you were someone who lived through it," she wrote. "I now know that Greg was right. My dad didn't leave this world in a moment of deep sadness. He was only trying to do his job. I can't thank you enough, Captain Sullenberger. It has been a real blessing to hear your story."

Lorrie was moved to tears by Theresa's letter. She couldn't get it out of her head, and so she decided to call her. They spoke for an hour—a pilot's wife and a pilot's daughter, sharing memories. "It was cathartic for both of us," Lorrie later told me.

Theresa talked of the inappropriate things well-meaning people have said to her. "People tell me that my father died doing what he loved," she told Lorrie. "Hearing that hasn't been helpful to me. If he died in his garden of a heart attack, that would be different. That would have been dying doing something he loved. But he died in a three-thousand-degree fire. That wasn't what he loved."

The search for the remains of Flight 592 victims took two months, and Theresa told Lorrie how traumatic that was for surviving families. The plane had disintegrated into the smallest pieces, which had to be pulled from the muck far into the Everglades. While workers pushed through every sawgrass blade, snipers stood by to shoot alligators before they approached.

Half of those who died on the flight were never identified. Theresa recalled talking to a woman who was given her son's ankle. They were able to identify it because of a tattoo.

Theresa's father was identified only by a finger, which was delivered to the family in a small box. Because he was in the Air Force, there were records of his fingerprints. "The coroner asked what we wanted to do with it," Theresa said. "We told him, 'We want it back in the Everglades with the rest of him."'

A mental health counselor and a wildlife and fisheries agent went with the family to the crash site during a memorial service, dropping First Officer Hazen's remains from a small envelope back into the water. It was a surreal and tough moment for the family, and yet it offered a small bit of comfort.

There have been all sorts of airline incidents since the Valujet crash in 1996, but Theresa said Flight 1549 struck her in ways that none of the others had. Flight 1549 and Flight 592 were similar, she said. Both encountered a serious problem minutes after takeoff. Both couldn't make it back to a runway. Both ended up in the water.

Theresa has been offered the opportunity to listen to the cockpit voice recordings, but has declined to do so. A father of a flight attendant chose to listen, and said he ended up in therapy as a result. The cockpit door was open, and the sounds of screaming passengers are very clear on the tape. "It would too hard for me to hear that," Theresa said.

In 2006, on the tenth anniversary of the crash she did find the courage to approach Greg Feith, an investigator: "I can take it," she said to him. "Please tell me: Was my father screaming?" He responded "Absolutely not. Your dad was going through checklist. He and Captain Kubeck did everything they were supposed to do until they were incapaciltated."

Theresa told Lorrie that when she watched on 60 Minutes, "I thought to myself, I wish that was my dad. I wish he could have had the same success and that everyone would be safe, and that it woulds be him being the hero and giving interviews."

She also told Lorrie this: "Because I lived through the worst outcome, I think I celebrate Flight 154 so much more. My joy for the passengers and crew is so much more profound."

In her letter to me, Theresa explained that she had spent a lot of time over the years thinking about "what-might-have-beens" involving her dad, who was fifty-three years old when he died. He passed away four years before Theresa's daughter, Peyton, was born. "That's the hardest part of the loss," she wrote, "that he'll never meet his granddaughter."

Along with her letter, Theresa enclosed a photo of herself with her husband and daughter—"so you can see who you've touched." They're a very attractive family, pressed tightly together, all smiles. She told Lorrie that she now feels her father and I are connected; two pilots who tried their best to save lives. Though her father would never see his granddaughter, it gave her comfort to know that I would.

And so I was honored to hold the photo of beautiful nine-year-old Peyton in my hands as I thought about First Officer Hazen and the things he has missed.