On January 15, 2009, Captain Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger was flying US Airways Flight 1549 out of La Guardia Airport in New York when his plane hit a flock of Canadian geese and both engines shut down. With only minutes to react, he landed the aircraft on New York City's Hudson River and saved the lives of all 155 souls on board.
"It was very stressful," the now-65-year-old heroic pilot recalls in somewhat of an understatement as he reflects on that fateful day, during his duties to promote Clint Eastwood's gripping new drama Sully, starring Tom Hanks in the title role.
"In the first seconds, I knew that it was going to be the worst day of my life and I knew exactly how much of a crisis this event was and how life-changing it would be," he continues. "But I was also confident that even though I had never anticipated this event and no one had ever trained for an event like this, I could take what I did know and adapt it and apply it in a new way."
Captain Sullenberger – or "Sully" as he prefers to be called – sounds surprisingly casual recounting the catastrophic event that played out on live television. As the world watched in amazement, dazed passengers climbed out on to the wings of the plane, floating in the river, and waited for New York ferries to pick them up.
The Miracle on the Hudson, as the landing was quickly tagged by news media, gave that city's rescue workers and residents a happy ending they badly needed after September 11 and turned the 30-year commercial airline pilot into a national hero. Sullenberger wrote the New York Times best-selling memoir Highest Duty: My Search for What Really Matters, and was ranked No.2 on Time magazine's Top 100 Most Influential Heroes and Icons of 2009 (trumped only by Michelle Obama).
Shortly after the accident, President-elect Barack Obama invited Sully and the crew to the Presidential inauguration ceremony and Sullenberger even threw out the first pitch of the 2009 Major League Baseball season for the San Francisco Giants, wearing a jersey they made for him inscribed with the number 155 – for the number of people he saved.
"Not even one of the many wonderful things that have happened to me and my family in the last seven years would have happened in even a hundred normal lifetimes," he muses in his soft-spoken voice about the fame unexpectedly thrust upon him. "This whole experience has already been a wild ride so having a film made about it is also surreal, but I always like Clint's work and Tom's work and I knew it couldn't be in better hands."
Sullenberger sits down in a West Hollywood hotel suite looking elegant in a grey suit jacket and pants with an open-collared, crisp, white dress shirt underneath. He jokes that he's taller than Tom Hanks (which is true) and he has a warm yet stoically graceful manner about him that's immediately calming, even when he's recounting the terrible moments after his plane lost its engines.
"The three conscious thoughts I had in those first seconds were: disbelief, like, 'This can't be happening'," he says, "and that was immediately followed by, 'This doesn't happen to me!'"
There's no hint of ego as the grey-haired, blue-eyed former US Air Force fighter pilot rattles off statistics. "For 42 years and 20,000 miles in the air, I had never been so challenged on a flight that I doubted the outcome," he adds, "and then the third thought was a realisation that unlike all those other flights for 42 years, this one would probably not end on a runaway with the aircraft undamaged and I was OK with that, as long as I could solve the problem.
"I had 208 seconds to do something I'd never done before and get it right the first time," he continues evenly, "and I knew that if I did that, then the airplane would float long enough for us to be rescued, which was critical on such a cold winter's day."
Captain Sullenberger retired a year later and spends his time as a sought-after speaker and aviation safety consultant. He's now also joined a rarified group of real-life heroes portrayed by Tom Hanks and can't resist admitting he's met the others, too.
"When Tom came to my house, we spent half a day talking about the pitfalls and responsibilities of playing a real living person, and he's done that with people I've met, including Captain James Lovell (Apollo 13) and Rich Phillips (Captain Phillips, who was No.3 on the Time magazine list that year, right behind Sullenberger)."
When he hears that guests at a recent studio screening of the film were offered a "Sully" cocktail, he smiles widely. "I haven't had it in a while but it's a Grey Goose vodka and a splash of water that seemed to appear at bars almost immediately after the flight," he explains. "Maybe it'll make a comeback with the film!"