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Five Minutes With: Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger

Captain Chesley 'Sully' Sullenberger attends the New York premiere of the film "Sully" in Manhattan

Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger, the heroic captain that saved the lives of everyone on board, when he was forced to make an emergency landing on the Hudson River, recalls his experience, gives his top tips for facing a fear of flying and speaks about the surreal experience of watching his life played out on the Silver Screen, by none other than Tom Hanks.

Five Minutes With: Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger

True heroes have no need for fanfare and accolades. The mild-mannered Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger, who Tom Hanks portrays in the film Sully, is the man responsible for saving all lives on board flight 1549 when he successfully executed an emergency water landing on the Hudson River in New York City. He is now an international speaker on airline safety. MiNDFOOD catches up with him to find out a few tips.

Firstly, do you like to be called Captain Sullenberger or Sully?

Sully is how I think the world knows me. I always make it a point to mention that everyone in my profession, who makes it to the left seat in command, has earned the title of Captain, but no ceremony here, thank you for asking.

Millions of people around the world shared your fantastic feat. When was the hearing made public?

The first public hearing on Flight 1549, conducted by the National Transportation Safety Board, was conducted in June of 2009, so about five months after the flight. It was public and was noted but not widely outside aviation circles. And of course the conclusion of the investigation occurred after I did the first book. So this story really hasn’t been told before. This story that you saw in the movie about the investigation, people do not know. And so that is why this film, I think, covers so much new ground and it’s so important.

You obviously do very well in stressful situations and in critical moments you’re able to keep calm. Were you always like that?

I think there is a misconception that during the flight we were preternaturally calm. The reality is while we sound calm on the radio and if you look at the cockpit voice recorder transcript, you see that we are all business and within seconds taking effective action. It’s from decades of education and training and experience and practice. And while my natural temperament is to be stoic and a man of few words, those are all things that people can, and do learn and especially professional pilots. Those are the kinds of skills that work in an emergency and an airplane, that we have to have. And it’s a matter of professional responsibility to keep the passengers safe and to solve whatever problem you might be suddenly faced with in an airplane.

How did you feel inside?

It was very stressful. I mean, in the first seconds, I knew exactly how much of a crisis this event was and I knew it was going to be a life changing event, and I knew that it was going to be the worst day of my life and the hardest day of my life, but I was confident that even though I had never anticipated this event and no one had ever trained for an event like this, I was confident that I could take what I did know and adapt it and apply it in a new way. And as it turned out those 208 seconds where I did something that I had never done before, I was able to get it right the first time.

Are there any practical tips on how to survive a plane crash?

People always ask me, ‘Where is the best place in the airplane to sit?’ There have been a lot of statistical studies to indicate that there is not a best place because each event is so specific. There is one thing that you can do that will make the most difference. And I think it’s a matter of personal responsibility for everyone, for every passenger and that is to know where the exits are and how they operate. To know where the emergency exits are and where the lights are and to only have a seat cushion for flotation or a life vest under your seat or somewhere else. It’s knowing how the safety equipment works on the airplane and where it is. That knowledge will enable you to save your own life, because the flight crew is not large enough to have an attendant to assist each one of you. Especially for the emergency exits, which are not typically near flight attendant seats. Passengers will have to open the exits on the flight. So arming yourself with that knowledge will enable you the best chance to save your life. And leave your baggage behind. It’s not worth risking someone’s life to take even a few seconds trying to retrieve a personal item that can easily be replaced.

Turbulence makes people very nervous but a lot of people are of the view that it’s nothing to worry about.

And they are right. That is one of the most commonly asked questions and people always say that they are afraid to fly often because of the turbulence. First of all I should tell you that pilots are trained to know the conditions that can lead to turbulence. They are trained to avoid turbulence as much as possible and they are trained on how to manage turbulence when it is not possible to avoid it, like changing speed or changing altitude for example. Turbulence is best thought of as a temporary inconvenience and airplanes are designed and built to a strength standard of the worst possible turbulence, plus a margin of 50 percent.

Let me give you a little exercise that you can easily do the next time you are riding in a car as a passenger on any average road to help you compare what turbulence is like on a flight versus the ride on a road or a highway. When you are riding in a car as a passenger, next time close your eyes and really focus and concentrate on everything you feel. Every little bump and jolt and stop and start, and every swerve and every vibration and imagine that you are going to try to read a book or imagine that you are trying to eat a meal on a tray on your lap in a car and feel how difficult that would be.

Then, compare that to even a bumpy airline flight and you will realise that even the car ride, is on average, much rougher. The difference is of course we know the person who is driving and we are not ceding control of our fate to someone unknown to us in a different part that we can’t see, and also we understand that driving is an everyday part of our lives.

What was it like to see Tom Hanks playing you?

Well it’s surreal to have our lives large on the big screen and I have seen the film twice. The first time, it was a very emotional experience and it was almost an out of body experience to see someone else become like me and in some cases speak words I spoke almost verbatim, either to my wife or to Jeff Skiles or someone else. But I think he did a masterful job and he really transforms himself in every way, the speech, the cadence of the walk, the mannerisms and the attitude that he has about things.

Are you still a full time pilot?

No, I retired about a year later after the famous flight and I am now a recreational pilot and I fly for fun.

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