3 Lessons from the US Airways Hero Pilot Chesley Sullenberger


By: , SparkPeople Blogger

"I was sure I could do it."

That was the response of US Airways Flight 1549 Pilot Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger during an interview with Katie Couric on CBS' 60 MInutes on Sunday.

Sullenberger safely landed a flight from New York to North Carolina in the Hudson River after a bird blew out the plane's engines on Jan. 15.

All 155 passengers survived, and Sullenberger has been called a hero.
Thanks to his training and experience, he knew he could safely land the plane, he just never imagined he would ever have to do so.

"I had this expectation that my career would be one in which I didn't crash an airplane."

Those comments and others he made are reminiscent of the journey we're all on. Some of us arrive to SparkPeople on a downward spiral. We're hurdling toward Earth at alarming fast rates, calling mayday, and heading for a crash landing.

Heading for crash landing in life can be just as terrifying as heading for one in the air. Thankfully, that pilot and each of us has the resources to avert catastrophe.

We can distill three lessons from that pilot:
  1. Rely on your training and experience.
    "I needed to touch down with the wings exactly level. I needed to touch down with the nose slightly up. I needed to touch down at a descent rate that was survivable. And I needed to touch down just above our minimum flying speed but not below it. And I needed to make all these things happen simultaneously."

    Sullenberger had a tough job to do. He was stressed. But he knew that he could do it. He believed in himself and remembered his training and extensive experience.

    "The physiological reaction I had to this was strong and I had to force myself to use my training and force calm on the situation," he told Couric.
    When you're in a tough spot, either staring down a cinnamon roll the size of your head or fighting the urge to skip a workout, you don't just give up. You think of the lessons you've learned. Eating that cinnamon roll will cost you 37 laps of the mall. You think of the experience you've gained. Working out makes you feel great, and it will improve your mood.

    You have all the tools you need to succeed. When you're in a tough spot, take a deep breath and remember how far you've come--and all you've learned along the way.

  2. Seek help from your support system.
    Though Sullenberger was the one in control of the plane as it went down, he wasn't alone. He had a co-pilot, several flight attendants, and the control tower to help him. The co-pilot was there to support him. The flight attendants, upon hearing the warning to "brace for landing," immediately began giving instructions to passengers to ensure their safety. The control tower kept other airplanes apprised of the situation and helped Sullenberger find a place to land.

    When you face disaster, you're not alone either. You have friends, family, and the entire SparkPeople Community on your side. Whether it's reading an article when you hit a plateau, reaching out to a SparkBuddy when you feel guilty for eating too much, or setting a SparkStreak to stay on track, you've got the resources you need. You're not doing this on your own. It's like those cell phone commercials. We're your network!

  3. Create Plans B, C, and even D.
    Sullenberger's first plan was to turn back to LaGuardia Airport, but he knew they couldn't make it. Then he tried to land in Teterboro Airport in, N.J., but knew that was too far. The Hudson River was his only choice. He didn't look back and focused on putting that plan into action.

    Plans change. Life happens. When rainy weather keeps you from your daily walk, you don't watch TV. You put in a workout DVD instead. When a conference call runs into lunch, you don't reach for chocolate. You raid your stash of healthy snacks. When you gain a pound after overindulging with friends, you don't give up. You work harder for the rest of the week.

    You have contingency plans. You're ready for whatever the world brings you.

When Sullenberger woke up on Jan. 15, he didn't think he would have to avert disaster. He thought it would be just another day. When you wake up on your bad days, you think the same thing. It's going to be just another day.
The next time you're heading for a crash landing, remember that you, like that heroic pilot, have all that you need to save lives. You're your own hero, and you're capable of greatness each and every day.

On a side note, the pilot's wife, fitness expert Lorrie Sullenberger, is doing her part to Spread the Spark! Her website and business aim to "extend a supportive hand to every woman to help her find fun in exercise everyday!"

What did you think about this story? If you had been in Pilot Sullenberger's shoes, could you have remained calm? Have you faced a similar "crash landing" in your life?

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  • 38
    I worked as a nurse, and I have ALWAYS been a person who can completely stay claim while any emergency is going on and make the most of the percious time available, but AFTER it is over, then I cry, etc. I wonder if that crew had a good cry like I would have had! - 2/16/2009   11:48:59 PM
    I'm sorry but I don't think our battle against cinnamon rolls holds a candle to what Capt Sullenberger and his crew faced that day. - 2/16/2009   11:23:23 PM
  • 36
    I'm lucky. I work for the Forest Service, and a lot of our folks handle unbelievable stuff with that kind of cool. I visited what we call a "project fire" with a "Type 1" team a few years ago. That means a big fire with our top staff people from all over the country. I watched them care for each other and fight the fire (they work long days -- double shifts especially on day one), and as I met them, I met folks who had been there in the aftermath of 9/11, who had had to watch air tankers crash, who picked up after the space shuttle exploded, and who helped out at Katrina, and who had come in to pick up the workload in those horrifying moments when there's been a fatality -- or multiple ones, like the ones in Northern CA this year. It takes commitment. (And anyone thinking of building a place out in the woods? Please think again. The firefighter who doesn't die saving your property may be my little sister.) - 2/16/2009   10:51:05 PM
  • 35
    Sully will always be my hero, even though I was (thankfully) not at all involved in the incident. - 2/16/2009   10:41:22 PM
    Great comparisons. I will save this one and turn to it when I need a little boost
    (-: Great blog- thanks for the motivational article! - 2/16/2009   10:31:18 PM
  • 33
    God bless this man. - 2/16/2009   9:53:45 PM
  • 32
    What a great blog with a great analogy. It just goes to prove that with the right mind set and staying focused on the goal you will make the right decisions. Know your goal, know what you have to do and don't get destracted by what you know is not in your best interest. Also realize the your decisions also effect others in your life just like his decision effected the passengers and their families. Keep on the right track. - 2/16/2009   9:17:11 PM
    Give God the Glory for all he has done. I thank him for guiding you through it all.. This wasn't a mistake. We all can learn That God is OMNIPRESENT. We all have a purpose for our being. He uses each of us to touch others and be a blessing to others. So I thank you and most of all I thank your PILOT. He was there with you when you needed him the most. Blessing to you for bringing everyone to safety. God is working on each of us daily. Blessing to all of the passengers that survive this. Now we all can learn from this lesson Just how fragile Life is.. It is like a vapor. Cherish every MOMENT WE HAVE. - 2/16/2009   8:34:27 PM
  • 30
    This is a wonderful entry- thank you! - 2/16/2009   8:28:18 PM
  • 29
    We need a LOT more "Sully's" in this world. Or maybe we just all need to find OUR inner Sully! - 2/16/2009   8:09:08 PM
  • 28
    I feel for the families of the people of the flight that crashed near Buffalo N.Y. - 2/16/2009   8:02:14 PM
    How great that you were able to use Sully's points and relate it to wellness. They make very good sense and they are practical as well. - 2/16/2009   7:39:22 PM
  • 26
    THis is such a great inspirational, and motivating story. He is a hero to every single passenger on that plane that day. There's one time in particular back in April of '99, when i felt like i was having a crash landing into earth. I had gone down to NIH in Bethesda, MD for a research project into the syndrome that i'd been born with. They did all sorts of tests on me that week that we were there. Then at the end of the week we met with the docs to discuss the findings, and they told me that i had a syndrome called Bardet-Biedl, whichi was okay with that, because it finally explaind a lot of things that i'd dealt with in my life up unill that point. However, the next thing that they told me, is that one of the things that's part of the syndrome is RP(Retinitis Pigmentosa), and that probably by my mid 20's i would be completely blind, and i was 12 when we got the diagnosis of the syndrome and the eye disease. I just burst into tears, and it felt as if my world was crashing down to the ground, and for the first couple months after the diagnosis, it felt as if I was trying to put the puzzles pieces back together of a giant jig-saw puzzle.
    But heroic acts like this, just go to show us that sometimes we are our own heroes. That sometimes we have to look deep within ourselves to find the strength, determination, and stamina to fight through any particular situation that life may decide to throw at us on any given day of the week, month, or year. - 2/16/2009   7:10:25 PM
  • 25
    Great blog!! Loved all three points especially #1&3. - 2/16/2009   6:53:36 PM
    I truly feel inspired by this hero and his expert thinking in a crisis situation. I applaud his crew for being a team that all worked well together.

    Just like Spark People which is my hero and the team of people here who work here together to make healthy and fit people from those who come looking for answers and help.

    - 2/16/2009   6:43:11 PM
    He is a hero in my book

    I saw the video of the plane going into the Huntsun River and the interviews of the 5 cure members-Rabbit - 2/16/2009   6:24:17 PM
    At one time I had a fear of flying. Then 9/11 happened. It took me almost 5 years to fly again. But I did it! Clear across the country, from Washington to the other Washington and lots of beautiful scenery from the air. Just as such I feel each day is a blessing, live it to the fullest and don't let the unexpected catch you off guard. Have other plan A,B, C, D, etc. - 2/16/2009   6:21:23 PM
  • 21
    Great article.
    I still ahve a fear of flying. Probably will never fly. - 2/16/2009   5:43:22 PM
  • 20
    What did you think about this story?
    This is an inspiring story that shows what determination and faith in yourself and your "team" or "network" can accomplish. The man had a skill that he used, remained calm - set a plan and worked that plan.
    If you had been in Pilot Sullenberger's shoes, could you have remained calm?
    With so many lives to be responsible for, I'd imagine that if I were in his shoes, I would know that every day you have no idea what curve-balls will be thrown your way; therefore, yes, I would have been able to remain calm.
    Have you faced a similar "crash landing" in your life?
    I haven't had anything that great of a magnitude, but 1 "small" incident was when my daughter (at the time 4 years old) was up a ladder with her older brothers looking at a birds nest. The boys got bored and left. The ladder got wobbly and fell from under her. She was hanging on to the tree branch as long as she could then fell, trying to "miss" the ladder. She hit it with her chin. Her brother brought her into the house SCREAMING that she was "bleeding ALL OVER the place".
    Yes, she had blood all over her face, her t-shirt and even her shoes, she was screaming and crying hysterically and I told her, "Hey, it's not all that bad." I instructed DS#2 to get a blankie and pillow, DS#1 to run next door (neighbor was an RN) and I got DD on the table, propped her knees up over the pillow and covered her with the blanket, cleaned up the blood, all the while she was hysterical and I told her -- "Screaming isn't going to make it stop hurting. Can you breath nice and slow?" (She was also asthmatic and I was "afraid" that she'd put herself into another episode) By the time my neighbor arrived with the steri-strips DD was calm and cleaned up, we got the strips on and DD was back out playing!
    In the end, when all was done, THAT is when I started shaking! I went to the bathroom (so no one would see me!) and let myself cry. I was grateful that I had experience in seeing DS#1 with "blood ALL OVER the place" when he was only 18 months old (feel off a booth at McDonalds and cut his chin open) so that I could remain calm and do what NEEDED to be done when faced with this situtation.

    In the end, we have knowledge to do MANY things - whether it's land a plane, bandage a child, or lose weight. The "trick" is to apply that knowledge when needed to succeed.
    - 2/16/2009   5:42:41 PM
  • 19
    Amazing - thank you! :) - 2/16/2009   5:34:58 PM
  • 18
    Thank you for this blog! It was well written and really meant a lot to me at this point in my journey... - 2/16/2009   5:07:49 PM
  • 17
    Excellent article! Thank you for sharing with us!

    - 2/16/2009   4:57:08 PM
  • 16
    Oh I saw the interview and it was amazing. It's nice to hear something great during this depressing time. The guy is my hero. - 2/16/2009   4:48:19 PM
  • EDEN30
    Great Blog!
    I am going to be saving this one. - 2/16/2009   4:43:08 PM
  • 14
    This article is one of my favorites. I loved the lessons you pulled from a seemingly unrelated event! - 2/16/2009   4:42:17 PM
  • 13
    I love this comparison. Life has its shares of ups and downs. We have to plan ahead, and when things do not go as planned, select the next best choice. Awesome!!! - 2/16/2009   3:54:37 PM
  • 12
    What I love about this article was the idea that you don't have to go it alone! That has been one of the key components to my success with SparkPeople. I would not have met my goals without the support from my various Spark Teams. Each team supported a different struggle in my life. Correction supports a different aspect of my life. I am still active on many different teams. My role has just shifted a little on most of them, from reaching up to reaching out.
    It is a powerful moment when you realize you are the one in charge of your success, that it really does reside within you. If you just calm down, trust, and begin to believe in you.
    I also love the part about having multiple plans. It was hard for me to learn that is okay to shift gears when the situation changes, but life is full of curve balls, it is okay to be on Plan Z if that is what it takes.
    Thanks for sharing how we can be heroes in our own lives! - 2/16/2009   3:35:23 PM
  • 11
    I would add an additional lesson:
    4. Keep your focus on your goal. At about 6:57 in the video Captain Sully states that he did not pray because he was so focused on the task at hand. He knew where he wanted to land and knew what it was going to take to get there successfully. The same principle applies to us. If we know specifically what our goals are, why we want to reach our goals and what is is going to take to get there, then when the going gets difficult we can focus on what is really important to us as a strategy to stay the course. - 2/16/2009   3:16:12 PM
  • 10
    I have taken flying lessons, and have nothing but admiration for this pilot! He's a symbol of the very best that people can be. A skilled professional, showing grace under pressure, and graciousness afterwards. What a tremendous role model. And, terrific blog. Every moment we each experience could be ordinary, or filled with extra-ordinary requirements. We will not be given 24 hours notice as to which moment is which :) And we might not even know when those moments happen, until long afterward. Isn't life wonderful? - 2/16/2009   2:57:06 PM
  • 9
    I love the analogy! Although, Sully is a true hero, now I feel like the hero of my weight loss plan. I am at the controls and when I hit turbulence I have to make the right choices to keep my plan alive. I can do it! I will have a safe landing when I reach my goal...yes, I will have thrown some extra weight out of the plane(plenty of it). But it feels GOOD! - 2/16/2009   2:02:55 PM
  • 8
    Since others are sharing their stories, I thought I'd share mine.

    My son and I were in a car accident when he was about 18 months old. I was trying to get on the freeway, but the three cars in front of me couldn't merge because of one very slow vehicle on the freeway. I stopped behind the line of cars. I could see the car coming up behind me in the rear view mirror, I just knew that he wasn't going to stop in time. I braced for impact. When he slammed into us my tensed arms jurked the wheel to the right and spun us 180 degrees. The drivers side slide off the road first sending us rolling 202 feet down an almost vertical incline into the ravine. The car was stopped on its side by a chainlink fence that kept us from going into the river. My first thoughts were "my purse and cellphone went out the broken windows". After unlatching my seatbelt, seeing my son still awake and alive, standing on the chainlink outside the drivers side window and peering up the hill, I thought "how am I going to get us out of here?" . It didn't occur to me in that moment that someone would be coming down for us. I would have done it! I don't know how, but I would have done it!

    Thankful the driver that hit me was the first one down, followed shortly by police, then fire department. It wasn't until I realized that I wouldn't have to get us out of there that I realized that I'd hit my entire left side of my body when the car rolled the first time. That's when I realized I was hurt.

    My son was ok. The roof of the car was touching his head, but he only had a lump on his head.

    It's been 6 years since that day. I'm ok, I still have trouble with my neck and shoulder sometimes, but mostly when I stop exercising.

    But, to this day I'm certain I would have tried to get us out of there by myself. Some how I probably would have done it.

    Stories like this one about the pilot emotionaly remind me of that day. - 2/16/2009   1:36:58 PM
  • 7
    Great entry! Especially tips 1 and 3. We all know what it is we have to do in order to get healthy. When faced with the tough situations we can ignore everything we know and make the bad choice. Or, we can stop, look at the information we have, look at where we're trying to go, how we're going to get there and whether our decision will take us in the right direction or result in disaster. - 2/16/2009   12:54:47 PM
  • 6
    I can remember one night my mom and dad and daughters and I went camping. They put us near the edge of a cliff. I was close to my mom and saw her slip. I grabbed her and although she was heavy she started pulling me down with her. I had to force myself to brace and pull backwards. I pulled her to safety. I feel very close to my mom since then. She is now 87. Another time I was waitressing and a customer came in and had a seizure. I had watched a Dr. her a seizure patient once before so I did what he had done. I told the other waitress to go to the back and have the dishwasher call an ambulance. He was still out when the ambulance came but they got him to safety. He came back later to thank the other waitress but she wanted to take credit and although he gave her a dollar i refused to take it because I said his life was more important than money. I guess I had gotten that from my mom because she had been an RN. - 2/16/2009   11:44:05 AM
  • 5
    I think this blog relates more to life's surprises then it does to a health program - but a great blog all the same!
    denny - 2/16/2009   11:37:04 AM
    When I was very pregnant with my 2nd child I had a situation with my not yet 3 year old. He was basically bitten by the family dog. I had been sitting in a lounge chair outside - it was a buggy, hot and uncomfortable day and we were trying to maintain calm and comfort outside. The dog was resting under neath a nearby tree and my son went over to say hello. Apparently the dog misunderstood and bit my son in the face - ( needless to say the dog was put down that day - to add to the drama). I don't remember leaving that lounge chair....I just remember scooping my now crying child and rushing into the bathroom to examin the damage. I had no doubt in my mind that I would drive this child to the hospital. No question whatsoever - and just then a neighbour rushed in and said 'grab some towels and lets go'...I did what he asked.

    And it wasn't until much later that I had a sudden case of reality and wondered how on earth I was going to manage to drive while my now screaming and bleeding child is now clinging to me - there is no way I could have but I would have....and I have no doubt even to this day that I would have some how managed that.

    Sadly that dog is gone, my son survived it all and went on to love dogs - there wasn't one moment when he was frightened by dogs...me on the other hand had more than a few moments of nervousness ( I am totally fine now and so is my son aged 30)

    The rush of adrenaline and the absolute conviction that you can do it and you will do it is amazingly strong in those devistating moments.

    Its like a guy who lifts a car off a person - a 4000 pound car somehow becomes a non-issue.....when the need arises.

    Obviously my story is not quite like this one - its still proof that we can be very powerful when we are faced with huge dilemmas.

    - 2/16/2009   11:16:47 AM
  • 3
    Isnt this man GREAT!! He is such an ispiration and motivator...
    He totally rocks!!! Thank you Sully for being the man you are and teaching the world a valuable lesson or two or three!!! - 2/16/2009   11:07:50 AM
    This is one of my all-time favorite blogs...wow, how insightful!

    "he didn't think he would have to avert disaster. He thought it would be just another day. When you wake up on your bad days, you think the same thing. It's going to be just another day.

    The next time you're heading for a crash landing, remember that you, like that heroic pilot, have all that you need to save lives. You're your own hero, and you're capable of greatness each and every day."

    This is so true! GREAT BLOG!!! - 2/16/2009   11:04:24 AM
  • 1
    I liked this and could definitely relate as I was once a flight attendant with Eastern Airlines. I was fortunate enough to never experience an emergency landing during my 13 years a flight attendant but this is good advice for all of us on our journey through life. - 2/16/2009   11:01:40 AM

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