Leaders, Pioneers & Professionals: Captain Sully Sullenberger


The 2021 Leaders, Pioneers and Professionals series got off to a fantastic start with an interview with Captain Chesley, ‘Sully’ Sullenberger on the 9 Feb. As Sully has been interviewed many times before about US Airways flight 1549, we wanted to focus on a number of points that relate to how aviation and aerospace are inspiring industries.

For many of us in the industry, aviation captures the imagination in a unique way from the pioneering spirit of the Wright brothers, the courage of allied military pilots in the second world war, to Sully’s “Miracle on the Hudson” there are innumerable stories of leadership, courage and endeavour that have contributed to changing the world.

Against the backdrop of COVID-19 and the travails of 2020 for the industry amongst numerous others, there are many reasons for young people to pursue their goals. To this end Sully, as an iconic figure in commercial aviation, is an inspiring aviator who has a fascinating background and we were able to discuss in detail a multitude of issues related to safety, training, technologies, resilience and other attributes common to aviators’ career success. Sully was presented with the Air League’s Founders medal, for meritorious achievement in June 2009, in Buckingham Palace, by the Duke of Edinburgh, the Air League’s Patron for over 60 years. The Founders Medal is a meritorious achievement award and in 2009 marked the centenary of the Air League. Sully was a USAF fighter pilot who flew the Phantom F4-D at RAF Lakenheath in the late 1970s.

Over the last 12 years he has become an accomplished author, a keynote speaker who has engaged audiences around the globe on leadership and flawless execution, and inherently in that has become an exemplar for young aspiring professionals in aviation. A particular characteristic of the Leaders, Pioneers and Professionals series is that we like to include our alumni who are at different points in their early stage careers. For the discussion with Sully, Air League Leading Edge members included Jordan Penning, a Masters degree student and aspiring civil airline pilot, Dipeet Mehta, a type rated A320 pilot currently working in British Airways safety and security team and Bridget Donaldson presently studying for a Masters in Engineering at Oxford University and who aims to be a pilot in the military.

The opportunity to speak to Sully was greatly appreciated by the whole team and resulted in some tremendous feedback from our members and guests who viewed the broadcast. The list of guest speakers for LPP’s in 2021 is already filling with some inspiring speakers and will cover a broader range of programmes and technologies, so we look to bringing you some great interviews throughout the year.

Captain “Sully” has been dedicated to the pursuit of safety his entire adult life. While he is best known for serving as Captain during what has been called the “Miracle on the Hudson,” Sullenberger is a safety expert, speaker, and author.

Born and raised in Denison, Texas, Sullenberger pursued his childhood love of aviation by learning to fly at age 16, while still in high school, and later at the United States Air Force Academy. At his graduation from the Academy in 1973, he received the Outstanding Cadet in Airmanship Award. In addition to his bachelor’s degree in psychology, he also has two master’s degrees, one in industrial psychology from Purdue University and one in public administration from the University of Northern Colorado. He also has an honorary Doctorate of Letters from Purdue University.

Sullenberger served as a fighter pilot for the United States Air Force. He advanced to become a flight leader and a training officer, attaining the rank of captain. During his active duty, he was stationed in North America and Europe. After serving in the Air Force, in February 1980 Sullenberger became an airline pilot with Pacific Southwest Airlines, later acquired by US Airways, until his retirement from commercial flying in March 2010.

Prior to gaining worldwide attention, Sullenberger was an active and ardent safety advocate throughout his four-decade-long career. He was selected to perform accident investigation duties for the United States Air Force, and served as an Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA) representative during a National Transportation Safety Board accident investigation. Additionally, Sullenberger served as a Local Air Safety Chairman for ALPA, and was a member of one of their national technical committees, where he contributed to the creation of a Federal Aviation Administration Advisory Circular. He was also instrumental in developing and implementing the Crew Resource Management course used by US Airways, and he taught the course to hundreds of other airline crew members.

After logging more than 20,000 hours of flight time Sullenberger became internationally renowned on January 15, 2009 when he and his crew safely guided US Airways Flight 1549 to an emergency water landing in New York City’s frigid Hudson River. The Airbus A320’s two engines had lost thrust following a bird strike. Sullenberger and his crew received international acclaim for their actions that day, including the passage of a Congressional resolution recognising their bravery. Sullenberger was ranked second in TIME’s “Top 100 Most Influential Heroes and Icons of 2009” and was awarded the French Legion of Honour.

Sullenberger is the #1 New York Times best-selling author of Highest Duty: My Search for What Really Matters and also wrote Making a Difference: Stories of Vision and Courage from America’s Leaders. Clint Eastwood directed the major motion picture about Sullenberger’s life, titled SULLY, based on Highest Duty. Tom Hanks starred in the lead role; Aaron Eckhart and Laura Linney co-starred. The film was released to critical acclaim in September 2016 and garnered four Broadcast Film Critics nominations and one Academy Award nomination. Highest Duty was republished that year as SULLY: My Search for What Really Matters.

Sullenberger is an international lecturer and keynote speaker at educational institutions, corporations and non-profit organisations about the importance of aviation and patient safety, high performance systems improvement, leadership, crisis management, life-long preparation, and living a life of integrity. He presented at the World Economic Forum in Davos in 2011, as well as the Swiss Economic Forum that same year. From 2009 to 2013, he served as co-chairman of EAA Young Eagles—a program that inspires and educates youth about aviation.

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