By Tech. Sgt. Cortchie Welch
Academy Public Affairs
Capt. Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger, who saved U.S. Airways Flight 1549 with a heroic water landing in January, returned to the roots of his aviation career here Wednesday to accept a coveted flight award from the Air Force Academy, his alma mater.
Captain Sullenberger, a 1973 graduate, received the 2009 Colonel James Jabara Award for Airmanship during a ceremony on the Academy’s Terrazzo that included a pass and review of 4,400 cadets.
“It’s humbling to be in such company – it’s quite an honor,” said the seasoned pilot. Past winners of the award include 1st Lt. Karl Richter, a 1964 Academy graduate, who at the age of 23 was the youngest pilot in the Vietnam conflict to shoot down a MiG in air-to-air combat.
During his two-day return to the Academy, Captain Sullenberger, who was classmates with Lt. Gen. John Regni, Academy superintendent, and Gen. Norton Schwartz, Air Force chief of staff, made a visit to his old Cadet Squadron-18, held a question-and-answer assembly with cadets and took a glider for a flight.
“The flight was wonderful, beautiful,” said the captain, who, as an Academy glider instructor pilot, amassed more than 1,000 flight hours – an unprecedented number for a cadet. “I spent a big part of my time here flying gliders. People seemed to think that it was really exceptional that I was able to fly so much while I was here. It was a great sense of satisfaction that I was able to do that. And this glider flight was a great reminder of that. It was a pleasure to be on the airfield again and fly with a cadet.”
Captain Sullenberger, a native of Denison, Texas, and his crew with 155 people aboard Flight 1549 earned international acclaim Jan. 15 when they collectively put their emergency evacuation skills to the test.
Almost immediately after takeoff from New York’s LaGuardia Airport, the Airbus 320 that Captain Sullenberger piloted lost power in both engines after striking a flock of birds. With extraordinaire calm and coolness, he began to make decisions and maneuvers that resulted in a successful emergency landing the world is still talking about.
The captain explained how he and the crew showed so much composure during the crisis that carried over to the 150 passengers.
“Jeff [First Officer Skiles] and myself had been doing this for so long that we were just focused on doing our jobs,” Captain Sullenberger said. “You don’t allow other things to distract you. It was the experience and training of the flight attendants, who displayed an outwardly calm and professional demeanor, that got the passengers to respond in kind.”
Exhibiting Air Force core values, he walked the length of the aircraft twice to ensure everyone had safely evacuated the plane.
Three months after the “Miracle on the Hudson,” Captain Sullenberger said he continues to get a large quantity of letters and gratitude from admirers and well-wishers. He said he thinks often about a reunion meeting of his crew and passengers along with their families that took place in Charlotte, N.C., in February.
“The most touching part for me during the reunion was when women came up to me and said, ‘Thank you for not making me a widow,’ ‘Thank you for allowing my 3-year-old son to have a father,’ and ‘Thank you for keeping my family intact,” he recounted.
He said the story of Flight 1549 captured the imagination of America and the world because, “People were looking for good news, they were looking for a reason to be hopeful again.”
“I think this event was an anecdote to all the bad news that has happened in the last couple of years,” said the former F-4 Phantom pilot.
He said it’s difficult to point to any particular training he’d received at the Academy that guided him during the heroic act on the Hudson River.
“It was many little things that added up to an important whole,” he said. “It was the entire experience [at the Academy].”
Captain Sullenberger, who lives in Danville, Calif., with his family, said it’s “been a gradual concept” to fully realize the impact of his heroic actions.
“It’s taken time to process and incorporate those events into my persona,” he said. “But I’m confident that we made the right choices. I’m confident that we had the best outcome that we could have under those circumstances. I’m satisfied and very grateful for a successful outcome with no injuries. Over time, I really appreciate how remarkable that event was.”
Captain Sullenberger last visited the Academy about 25 years ago during his 10-year reunion.
“I’d had forgotten what a beautiful location it is,” he said. “I’ve always loved this part of Colorado, with the big sky and a very dramatic landscape. I’m gratified to see so much construction going on. I’m glad to see the investment being made.”
The airline captain said being with cadets was refreshing.
“It was great to be with the cadets,” he said. “It couldn’t have been more wonderful. The cadets have taken good care of the Academy while I’ve been gone. The future is bright.”
Cadets returned the praise.
“He’s down to Earth,” said Cadet 1st Class Anne Marie Wathen, a native of Atlanta. “He’s not in it for the fame. He deserves all the recognition he gets.”
Cadet 2nd Class Erik Nelson of Uncasville, Conn., said he has great respect for Mr. Sullenberger because of the passion he shows for flying.
“He’s a notch above the rest,” Cadet Nelson said. “His passion for flying gave him the edge to do what needed to do to land the plane safely.”