Capt. Sully: 'It's an ultra-safe time' to fly 15 years after his miracle landing

Fifteen years ago today, a miracle happened on the Hudson River.

After hitting a flock of geese just after takeoff, US Airways Flight 1549 had to make an emergency landing.

Captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger III landed an Airbus A320 in the Hudson River just off Manhattan in an event that is still remembered as the “Miracle on the Hudson.” All 155 passengers and crew aboard were safely evacuated. The jet had taken off from LaGuardia Airport in New York when both of its engines failed.

Sullenberger sat down with USA TODAY to reflect on that history-making moment and discuss the current and future state of aviation safety.

The following transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

Passengers in an inflatable raft move away from US Airways Flight 1549 that went down in the Hudson River in New York on Jan. 15, 2009.
Passengers in an inflatable raft move away from US Airways Flight 1549 that went down in the Hudson River in New York on Jan. 15, 2009.

Question: It’s the 15-year anniversary of your miraculous landing on the Hudson. Can you reflect on that day? Did you think that you were going to be talking about it 15 years later in the moments before you touched down?

Sullenberger: No, for two reasons. First, one of the biggest surprises for all of us is how long the story has lasted because of how it's touched people and the unique character of it.

But no, because this was such a sudden, unanticipated, never-trained-for emergency of a lifetime.

We had lost both engines on our airliner at low altitude over one of the most densely developed areas of the planet. And I had to very quickly fly the airplane at the same time I was coming up with a plan that I had to execute.

I knew it was only a matter of minutes before our flight path intersected the surface of the Earth. I had to find the best place for that to happen and the best way for that to happen.

This was very quickly, taking what I did know, adapting it and applying it in a new way to solve a problem I'd never envisioned and working together with our first officer, Jeff Skiles. Our three flight attendants, Donna, Sheila and Doreen, with our air traffic controller, Patrick Harten, the rescuers, everyone involved in both sides of the river, New York, New Jersey, all the first responders − this was a community effort. It took everyone on their own initiative, rising to the occasion and working together to make sure that every life was saved.

Q: What did the industry learn from this incident? And how has aviation evolved in the 15 years since?

Sullenberger: This was a wake-up call for the industry. We've had a number of wake-up calls in the industry recently. We have made commercial aviation ultra-safe. We've gone over a decade without a single crash in the United States, something I would not have thought possible 30 or 40 years ago.

As we have made aviation safer, it's become harder to predict what the next challenge might be.

The real hard thing right now is: How do you prepare in a general way or something that might be so specific? It requires everybody to take this profession, not as a job and not even as a profession, but as a noble calling. It requires a dedication and a passion for continuous learning to be able to be the best pilot, the best flight attendant, the best air traffic controller.

Q: The recent Boeing 737 MAX 9 incident is dominating everyone's attention right now. What do you think of the MAX program?

Sullenberger: It's another indication of how everyone involved in aviation has to be able to catch errors and correct them before they can lead to harm. We're decades past the time in aviation history when we could define safety solely as the absence of accidents. We have to be much more proactive and do much more work than that. We have to do an ongoing evaluation of everything that we're doing to make sure we haven't missed something.

Former airline pilot Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger, who safely landed a crippled jetliner on the Hudson River ten years ago, before the House aviation panel on June 19, 2019.
Former airline pilot Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger, who safely landed a crippled jetliner on the Hudson River ten years ago, before the House aviation panel on June 19, 2019.

You know, what keeps me up at night is something I haven't thought of yet. From the time that airplanes are designed, and manufactured, and then maintained and operated, we have to be looking for things that have been missed, bolts that might not have been tightened enough or whatever. It turns out that (was) the ultimate root cause … of this particular accident, that could have been very easily catastrophic, had it occurred at a higher altitude and in a different situation.

Cruising Altitude: I've covered Boeing's 737 MAX for years. A quick rundown of the issues

Q: How do you cut through the noise on all of the different reports that get generated to actually identify what the problems that need addressing are?

Sullenberger: That's where AI might be helpful.

We collect a lot of data in aviation, but right now, we're not using all of it. We collect a lot of maintenance reports, and a lot of aircraft equipment failure reports that sometimes are done but not always … recorded or not put in a database where they can be searched very easily.

If we do a better job of collecting these kinds of reports of things not quite right, then we can have AI search for trends and tease out the signal from all the noise.

We can begin to see this whole lifecycle of a system or even a part and begin to improve them, so they fail less often, so they're more durable, they're more reliable, they're more effective. And we can see how they interact and see if one failure may lead to another or some lack of information may cause someone to take an action that is not appropriate.

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Q: Air traffic control has also been under the microscope recently, with people discussing staff shortages. Can you talk about your perspective on where things stand with ATC right now?

Sullenberger: They're really seriously understaffed in almost every facility that the Federal Aviation Administration has, and that is a serious strain on the system.

Air traffic controllers might work six days a week, you know – 10-, 12-, 14-hour shifts.

When people are tired, they make mistakes. It's just that simple. It's inevitable.

We haven't recruited enough air traffic controllers; we haven't trained enough air traffic controllers. It just goes on and on and on. And no one of one of these pieces is immediately catastrophic. But in aggregate, they (can) greatly increase the risks of this chain of individual causes.

Lights are burnt out, or they're not working, or they haven't been trained, or someone's tired from the overnight shift that they just came off. All these things lead to greater risk and more incidents. And ultimately – if we don't make corrections – to a catastrophic accident.

We should not be, in the meantime, operating more flights than we can safely operate. We're probably flying too many flights right now. It's going to take years to have the budgets to hire, train and install the the lighting and safety equipment at more major airports. It's going to take years, probably decades. It's a lot of political will.

Q: What advice do you have for travelers who may be nervous to get on a plane right now?

Sullenberger: It's an ultra-safe time, and the chances of someone being in an aircraft accident are infinitesimal. Even if they are, the chances are high that they will survive. Most accidents are survivable for the majority of people on the airplane. Even really serious ones. So that's good news. The one thing that every passenger can do, and this is something you have control over, is wear your seatbelt for the entire flight unless you need to get up and go to the lavatory.

If you do that, then you protect yourself from unexpected severe turbulence that might suddenly happen and throw you up to the ceiling and back down again. You protect yourself if there's a sudden problem on the landing and there's a sudden stop from being thrown into the seat back in front of you. That's one thing that passengers can do to take care of themselves. And that's the personal responsibility there.

Even if you're like me and you fly all the time, you need to pay attention to the safety demonstration. It's cheap insurance that you have armed yourself with the knowledge and the ability to save your own life. That's a personal responsibility that each of us has.

Zach Wichter is a travel reporter for USA TODAY based in New York. You can reach him at

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Capt. Sully reflects on miracle landing, airline safety after 15 years