Captain Chesley Sullenberger

Up until about a week ago, it had been awhile since I had someone move me so deeply that it set me on a fiery new path of inspiration. Last weekend, my fiance and I saw the movie “Sully” starring Tom Hanks. Sully is based on the true story about Captain Chesley Sullenberger, a former U.S. Airways commercial pilot who is famously known for his extraordinary landing of Flight 1549 dubbed as “The Miracle on the Hudson.” Now although this actual event occurred back in 2009, it is now fully hitting me just how incredible this event was and the lessons to take from it.

I’m not saying I didn’t take note of how spectacular this was when it happened, but back in 2009 I was working full time as an accounts payable specialist and going to school working on my MBA degree. I had a lot going on, and I was in a completely different place spiritually than I am now. I was 24 years old, working my ass off trying to finish school, pay my bills and find my way in the world. My mother had only been passed 6 years, and my dad and I had a rocky relationship as per usual, so my emotional health still had a lot of growth ahead.

The movie was 1 hour and 36 minutes long, and it was very emotional for me. I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it. The next day I downloaded Captain Chesley Sullenberger’s book “Highest Duty: My Search for What Really Matters” on my Kindle ereader. I couldn’t put the book down. After watching the movie, I wanted to know more about this man who so carefully landed Flight 1549 and saved so many lives. What’s his story? Where does he come from? What happened in his life up until January 15, 2009 when his plane lost thrust in both engines? How did he have such precision and not freak out and make a mistake? The answers are powerful reminders for us all.

I couldn’t shake the feeling Sully’s story gave me, and I asked myself why. When I was a little girl, I wanted to fly and this story gently reminded me of that desire. I used to jump from couch to couch in our house living room pretending I was Peter Pan. In grade school, I would gather two of my best friends at recess time and have us all pretend we were birds. I dubbed the name “Tweety,” which was my first parakeet’s name who I deeply loved. Tweety was my first pet as a child, and I fell in love with birds. From a young age, there was just something special about the ability to fly. The idea made me feel completely carefree, liberated and energized.

What Captain Sullenberger faced on Flight 1549 was anything but ‘carefree.’  He was faced with a dire life or death crisis, and he knew exactly how to manage it—because of his choice in life philosophies.

The Art of Preparation & Self-Discipline

If you haven’t read Captain Chesley Sullenberger’s book, I highly recommend you do so. It is filled with powerful virtues and life philosophies that answer all of the questions above. He is the epitome of greatness in my book. The key to “The Miracle on the Hudson” landing of Flight 1549 is how he chose to live his life from a young boy. From age 16 when he first started taking flying lessons, he embodied the art of learning, observing and understanding. He took his craft and interest of flying very seriously. He meticulously studied the skills necessary to do what he wanted to do—to fulfill his dream of becoming a pilot.

With this particular speciality, he had to learn the importance of safety above all. He quickly honed his skills, and he never stopped learning. He took note of his own mistakes, and the mistakes of others. He didn’t just casually learn—he embodied the mistakes and lessons from every single aviation incident he experienced, witnessed or heard about through the news. He read books about notable pilots, read news articles, visited crash sites, talked to people, asked questions and applied all of this knowledge to his craft. 

The level of self-discipline Sully practiced consistently his entire life is remarkable. He found his purpose and did what was necessary to be successful. He went on to attend the U.S. Air Force Academy and became a jet fighter pilot. Though he never saw first hand combat, the skills and experience he gained was invaluable. Every single year since age 16 as a beginner pilot, then a military pilot prepared him for his career ahead as a commercial airline pilot.

As a U.S. Airways commercial pilot, he chose to never take short cuts.

He never allowed himself to become complacent. 

He meticulously completed his checklists, checked the weather before arriving at the airport, made sure his flight crew members were taken care of and had everything they needed.

He practiced selflessness.

When setting out for several days of flights with the same flight crew, he gathered everyone including his First Officer and set a level of expectation, professionalism and duty.

He practiced camaraderie and leadership. 

He went out of his way to help passengers sacrificing his time and energy if it made their travel experience easier or more enjoyable.

He practiced being in service to others. 

After the events of 9/11, he was inspired and couldn’t wait to get back into the sky flying to prove America was still standing strong after terror attacks in our skies, and to comfort passengers that under his watch he would do whatever was necessary for the safety of others.

He practiced courage and resilience. 

After Flight 1549 landed in the Hudson River, he was the last person off the plane and all he cared to find out was the number of souls that survived. He repeatedly asked authorities and other colleagues associated with either the pilots union or airline if everyone had been saved. He could not rest until he knew.

He practiced self accountability and responsibility. 

In an interview after Flight 1549, he said he did not doubt his skills and ability to make a successful water landing. This was not ego—he believed in drawing on his years of studying aviation and experience to deliver. He stayed focused on the task at hand and did not allow himself to become distracted by circumstances beyond his control. He worked with what he had available to him.

He believed in himself. 

As soon as he was off the life raft during the rescue efforts of Flight 1549, he called his wife to let her know he was OK, briefly what had just happened and that he just wanted to tell her and inform their daughters that he was OK despite what they might see on the news.

He practiced honor and thoughtfulness.

I feel like I’m only scratching the surface of the greatness of Captain Sullenberger. As a man and as a career pilot, he is amazing to me. These are some of the life philosophies he lived day in, day out. Because of these diligent choices, it prepared him to manage the crisis that was Flight 1549 and saved 155 lives, including his own. Do yourself a favor and read his book. If you’re in need of some kick ass inspiration to be a better human being or live a more purposeful life, this is the ticket. It is full of incredible detail and stories of his life experiences that prepared him for his famous Hudson River landing.

Captain “Sully” has deeply inspired me to be better—at everything. Because of his self discipline, he was fully prepared to show up and do something that had incredible meaning and mattered—he saved people’s lives. He thought he was going to make it his entire commercial pilot career without major incident, and then one day changed everything. One. Day. 

He was prepared. 

Q&A – Leave a Comment

Have you read Sully’s book?

What impression did it leave on you?

What do you need to do to better prepare yourself for life’s unexpected events?


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