Life after the landing: Hero pilot Sullenberger, wife to speak in February

Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger and his wife, Lorrie Sullenberger, have become public figures in the aftermath of Sully’s successful water landing of US Airways Flight 1549 in the Hudson River nearly three years ago. They will be guest speakers at a February event in Charleston.

Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger became famous overnight. Before that fateful flight nearly three years ago, he was just a pilot, worried about his dwindling income, concerned with airline safety, caring for his wife and two teenage daughters.

Then US Airways Flight 1549, taking off from LaGuardia Airport in New York, struck a large flock of birds. The impact disabled the engines. Sullenberger had to think fast. Less than four minutes later, the plane was afloat — and intact — in the Hudson River.

His safe water landing saved the lives of 155 people.

Sullenberger and his wife, Lorrie, will be guest speakers at the Roper St. Francis Foundation’s Roper Xavier (Rx) Society Donor Appreciation Gala on Feb. 4 at the Charleston Place Hotel.

In anticipation of his visit, The Post and Courier spoke with the Sullenbergers. Here is the exclusive interview, which has been edited for length.

Q: Let’s begin with US Airways Flight 1549, which you successfully ditched in the Hudson River on Jan. 15, 2009. Elsewhere, you’ve described the sequence of events during that brief flight.

What I want to know is the short-term and long-term effect it has had on you and your family. Did you wake up one morning afterward shaking with the knowledge that you had saved the lives of 155 people? Was there any PTSD? Was the experience a turning point in your life?

SULLY: It was a shock after almost 30 years of routine airline flying where almost everything works almost all the time. And we work very hard to make it routine. We anticipate, we plan, we try very hard never to be surprised by anything. We always have alternatives.

This was very different. This was a very rare event, and it very suddenly became an ultimate challenge of a lifetime, and I knew it as it was happening and my body responded in kind. I could feel my blood pressure, my pulse, shoot up.

I sensed my perceptual view narrow because of the sudden life-threatening stress, and I had to focus anyway to do my job. It was apparent as soon as we landed in the river that my life had changed forever, that nothing would be the same.

Lorrie reminded me recently that I called home late that night from the hotel and I said, “Lorrie I think our lives have changed forever.”

We did not know how much, or exactly how, but we knew that it was just going to be intense. And, in fact, it was.

At first, it was overwhelming, like having the world’s biggest fire hose pointed at you for at least a year and a half. ... Though practice, (we) have gotten better at living this new life. But we both had to rise to the occasion pretty quickly.

LORRIE: First of all, we see the accident ... as a two-pronged event, as far as the stress of it. There was the accident itself, and then the world outflowing, the media attention around it was a very stressful event for us.

In some ways, we didn’t get to fully appreciate, and recover and absorb what had happened from 1549 because of the media event. You know, you just went right to the next thing. ...

The accident was on a Thursday, and he came home very, very late on the Saturday after — he got home around midnight. And for those two days in between, when I’d talk to him on the phone, he kept saying, “I’m fine, I’m fine, I’m fine, I’m fine,” and he sounded fine on the phone.

Because of the paparazzi and the media that were still at our house, a pilot friend had ... snuck him home incognito on a Delta flight and a friend went and got him from the tarmac, brought him to his house, and then I went and got him and then snuck him into our house.

So when I met this friend’s car at 11 o’clock at night in the dark, and Sully got out of the car, I realized immediately that he wasn’t fine. He had lost 13 pounds in the 48 hours since the accident. ... He was very gaunt and had very dark circles (under his eyes).

He didn’t come running into my arms, he was very, kind of, disconnected and trying to absorb, you know, what had happened. ... I don’t think that people fully appreciated what it actually took out of him physically to do that, but that night I was shocked.

Q: At what point did you realize that this had made such an impact on you physically and emotionally that you really needed to do something?

SULLY: I knew immediately that this was going to do that to me. I didn’t know how I was going to appear to Lorrie and how shocking it would be for her, not to have seen me in three days, to see such a change in me.

I wasn’t getting any sleep. I was constantly, because of the PTSD, (having) distracted thinking, constant what-if, second-guessing, especially late at night, which is just natural in these kinds of situations.

Our peers who are experts in PTSD, our critical instant response team, pilots that deal with people who have been through situations like this (fortunately they’re rare), I asked them to give us a roadmap of what to expect, and it was exactly what we did experience.

I think I knew it was taking a toll on me but I don’t think I realized until Lorrie’s reaction how physically apparent it was. But I was working very hard to organize my thoughts because I had to respond. Less than 48 hours after the landing, I had to have my first meeting, or interview, with NTSB investigators and company officials.

So I had to try to recall as best I could the exact chronology. Interestingly, you’d think in those 208 seconds it would be difficult to remember exactly what happened when, but my recollection of events was very accurate.

In fact, when the investigators listened to the cockpit voice recorder, which only they may hear, some of my recollections and my testimony was virtually word for word what I had, in fact, actually said.

LORRIE: I don’t think that Sully or all of us realized how much we really were in shock until (we were) well past it and (could) look back on it. ...

Q: Lorrie, at what point did you realize you were past (the initial adjustment period)?

LORRIE: It was exactly a year I think. ... At the anniversary of the flight, it became a little more manageable for the people helping us, and we could be a little more proactive doing things and not just responding to things.

So that year mark was kind of critical. At that point, the girls and I all started getting really bad migraine headaches, I mean, days and days and days of migraine headaches.

We went to the doctor and I said, “My gosh, these are killing us, I can’t figure this out.” And he said, “Well, have you all had a common experience, like changing the carpet in your house?”

Of course ... we all had a common experience, but it wasn’t the carpet in our house.

And the way the doctor explained it to me at the time was your body gives you that fight-or-flight hormone that gets you through what it perceives as a threat — it wasn’t really a threat — through this experience.

When it thinks it’s OK and your body lets down, that’s when you start to have ... a headache or whatever ailment’s going to bother you. So it was a year after the fact that our bodies kind of went, “Phew, we can exhale.”

SULLY: What we both think is amazing is that I don’t think I’ve gotten sick in three years, in spite of lack of sleep.

Q: Your immune system has been jacked up forever.

SULLY: Who knows? But my take on it is that, as Lorrie has always known, there is a huge body-mind connection. And I think I have a sense of mission. I think that I have such a clearly designed obvious daily purpose in life because of this, and a responsibility to take advantage of it, to be an effective spokesperson for airline safety, for passengers, for our airline piloting profession, that it really gives me a reason to wake up every morning.

Q: Looking outward now, do either of you see the world differently because of Flight 1549?

LORRIE: Two things. One is, people ask me if this really scared me and changed me in that kind of way. I have always had this grateful attitude, because I’ve know every day (could) be the day that your loved one perishes, or something happens to them or, God forbid, your children get sick. ... I’ve always been really aware of that.

The other thing is, we’ve received tens of thousands of letters. We received 50,000 in the first weeks after the accident, and then after that we stopped counting. Some of them come to our house without an address. They can just write Hero Pilot USA, and from around the world, they’ll show up at our house.

SULLY: We’ve achieved Santa Claus status.

LORRIE: I have become kind of the keeper of those letters. Sully doesn’t have time to read a lot of them so I sort through them and read them all.

And, oh, my gosh, so many people have told us such amazing stories of things that they have gone through in their life, and somehow Flight 1549 and the effects of that kind of healed an old wound from something that had happened to them in their lives.

I felt very connected, I felt very American in the connectedness with all of these people.

I had ladies send me ... really personal stories or personal items or mementos that they had cherished. ... I feel this special gratitude toward the letters and the stories that they tell and all the amazing things that people have endured and gone through that you don’t hear about on the evening news, that you don’t read about anywhere.

Those have changed me. I quote some of the letters, Sully does in his speeches, and I can certainly because I just memorized a dozen or so that were just so extraordinary that I can’t get them out of my head.

SULLY: One of Lorrie’s missions in her life is to be the keeper of these stories. And we both feel an obligation, a responsibility, to this story to treat it with the respect it deserves because so many people were touched by it, because it gave many people hope.

So I think in that way it’s kind of given people back their faith in human nature despite the financial downturn and all the shenanigans that were associated with that.

I think once you go through something like this, it divides your life into the before-this-happened and after-this-happened.

I think also for many of the passengers, it’s given them a second chance. They actually will say that. And it tends to reconnect the people that they care about. Perhaps they change directions. And, more often, they live their life and not someone else’s idea of their life.

Q: Sounds like the fabric has been woven a little tighter across that portion of humanity that witnessed this, experienced this, watched it.

SULLY: Especially for people in New York. It’s sort of a bookend to Sept. 11, 2001. A good-news story involving an airplane.

Q: You have a long record as an airline safety consultant and expert, and you have not hesitated to speak out regarding issues that concern you. The Federal Aviation Administration, which is tasked with upholding safety standards, has been faulted for being too beholden to industry. Do you agree? What kind of safety and regulatory reform is needed?

SULLY: I do agree. I think it’s not exclusively an FAA problem. I think it’s endemic in our entire governmental system. I think it boils down ultimately to the influence that industry and large donors can have and not just on individual federal agencies but on legislators, on congressmen, senators.

We really need to address how our political campaigns are financed. I think this most recent Supreme Court decision that allowed corporations to be treated as individuals and have virtually unlimited abilities to donate is wrongheaded. I think it does not serve the people.

I think that even though we all vote, in some small way we may have been slightly disenfranchised in the way the money and the influence is used on Capitol Hill and in the financial and banking industries and in others.

And I would like to see regulatory agencies be able to operate in an environment in which they really could fully realize their charter, in which they really fully could protect the rights of air travelers and not have to worry so much about industry concerns.

Q: The airline industry has changed a lot since you began your piloting career. Was that a factor in your decision to retire?

SULLY: No, no it wasn’t at all. What allowed me to retire were the opportunities that have come our way since Flight 1549 landed in the Hudson.

Prior to that, like all my airline colleagues, I was going to have to work the rest of my life. And after the mandatory (retirement) age was reached at the airline, I was going to have to work somewhere else.

And I was trying very hard to become a good enough safety consultant that that would be an opportunity for me, a way to use my already deep life experiences without having to completely learn something else.

But because we had lost our pensions, because we had taken 20 percent to 60 percent pay cuts, I think we had saved some money but not enough to make up for what we had lost.

So because of the books and the speaking and the CBS News on-air contributor (work), (being a) safety consultant for major corporations and these other activities, now my kids can go to a good college. I will eventually be able to save enough (for) retirement.

Q: You are co-chairman, with your Flight 1549 co-pilot Jeff Skiles, of the EAA’s Young Eagles program, which introduces young people to aviation. What do you tell kids when they want to know what the life of a pilot is all about?

SULLY: I tell them a couple of things.

First, I believe that for everyone, no matter what your interests are ... if you can find your passion — and I was so fortunate to find my passion very early in life, literally at 5 years old, and then actually be able to do it — that’s a huge advantage. And when you love something, you’re willing to work harder at it, be more diligent, become more expert. ... And I tell them to follow (their) dreams but be willing to work very hard to achieve them.

And I tell them there are many ways to enjoy flying, either as a recreational pilot or a corporate pilot or as an air traffic controller or an aviation technician, a mechanic, or others, or possibly a professional pilot. But it needs to be something they really care about because it’s a very demanding job.

I think Young Eagles is good in many ways. We certainly make people aware of aviation and we try to encourage them to have what I call real adventures in the real world and not just virtual ones.

It’s pretty exciting to share your passion about flying with somebody else. ... Even if they don’t become licensed pilots, I think they’ll have a greater understanding of, and appreciation for, aviation and everything it contributes to our society, even the local airport.

Q: Has the fitness business been better for you lately, Lorrie?

LORRIE: No, I stopped doing everything after the accident. As soon as we hang up, I’m going out on a hike with a friend.

Q: You’re going to take care of your own fitness for a change.

LORRIE: It’s put me in particular in a really awkward (situation). My husband’s now famous, so people are attracted to that.

I don’t want to be with people who want to spend time with me because of my husband. So it was pretty apparent early on that all that was going to stop.

And his schedule was so busy that one of us needed to be available for our teenage daughters, and that was going to be me.

Q: And I imagine the adjustment, it’s ongoing.

LORRIE: It absolutely is. ... I don’t think either one of us thought this would change our lives to this degree and forever, really.

He would always be the pilot that landed in the river. But we didn’t realize it would strike such a chord with the American public in the way that it did.

Our friends said, “After a year it will all die down,” or “After two years it will all die down.”

What they don’t know is that the second book is coming out in the spring, Sully’s second book.

SULLY: May 15. (It’s titled “Making a Difference,” and it’s about leadership.)

LORRIE: He optioned the first book for a movie.

Q: I hope they do it justice, though. Are you consulting on it Sully?

SULLY: We both are. We have Hollywood people whom we trust, and I think that they get it and they’ll treat this story with the respect that it deserves, because it’s an important story for a lot of people.

LORRIE: We’ve turned down several before, so we knew it wasn’t going to be turned into a video game movie.

Q: I hope on balance you’re having fun and this is rewarding even though I know it must also have its frustrating moments.

SULLY: It is, it is. Sometimes I pinch myself. Lorrie and I both were prepared to be able to be public figures, although it’s a steep learning curve. We have these opportunities, and it’s been wonderful to be an author and a speaker and a consultant and to go places.