Danville pilot hailed as hero

January 16, 2009 11:03:27 PM PST
President Bush called Captain Chesley Sullenberger and praised him for his amazing skills and bravery after successfully piloting a US Airways plane into the Hudson River Thursday afternoon, saving the lives of the 154 other people on board. The president thanked Captain Sullenberger for his heroic efforts to ensure the safety of his passengers and the people in the area.

Captain Sullenberger also received a call from President-elect Barack Obama Friday evening. Obama told Captain Sullenberger how proud everyone was for the heroic and graceful job he had done in landing the damaged aircraft yesterday. The Sullenberger family has been invited to attend Obama's inauguration in Washington D.C. next week.

Captain Sullenberger lives in Danville, and Friday his wife talked for the first time. The family has been asked by US Airways not to speak about the incident, but his wife did share her thoughts about what has been an amazing 24 hours.

"We would just like to say we are very grateful that everyone is off the airplane safely, and that was really what my husband asked to convey to everyone, and of course we are very proud of dad," said wife Lorrie Sullenberger.

He is "dad" to his wife and two daughters and "hero" to people around the world.

Captain Sullenberger, known as "Sully," is the man who performed what is being called a miracle on the Hudson.

"He's feeling better today. He's a pilot, he's verry controlled and very professional," said Lorrie Sullenberger.

And by all accounts, the pilot with four decades of experience remained so throughout the harrowing landing Thursday.

"He's a pilot's pilot and he loves the art of the airplane," said Lorrie Sullenberger.

He performed that art with precision by easing the plane into the river, helping passengers out of emergency exits, and then checking the sinking cabin twice before leaving it himself. It is a story his family can still hardly believe.

"Like everyone else, I was stunned when he called and said there's been an incident, and even then I assumed it was a tug that had maybe bumped the airplane. Your mind just never goes to something like this," said Lorrie Sullenberger.

Lorrie Sullenberger told reporters she never imagined her husband would be involved in such an incident. "My husband had said over the years that it's highly unlikely for any pilot to have an incident in his career, let alone something like this."

The 57-year-old pilot has more than 40 years of experience, first as an air force fighter pilot, and for the last 29 years with US Airways. He got his pilot at the age of 14 and was named best aviator in his class at the Airforce Academy.

ABC7 photographer Steve Stifter is a family friend who flew with Captain Sullenberger at the Livermore Airport.

"After the plane landed, I made the comment, 'Now I know how the pros do it' because I've flown in and out of Livermore a couple of times and he just set the plane down perfectly," said Stifter.

Sullenberger has his own consulting firm called Safety Reliablity Methods and he's a visiting scholar with the Center for Catastrophic Risk Management at UC Berkeley.

"What happened yesterday was not an accident. That was something that was in fact a success and Sully and the people that supported him, all the way to the passengers, are the reason for that success," said UC Berkeley engineer Bob Bea.

And this has now turned into a media blitz. Their quiet Danville cul-de-sac is now the focus of news organizations around the world.

A neighbor had been watching the story on television all day yesterday, when suddenly, it hit home.

"I noticed all of these trucks starting to come into our neighborhood and I thought what is going on here? A group of people going up to their door -- I thought they had won the Publishers Clearing House," said neighbor Debbie Merritt.

While they aren't quite instant millionaires, this family has a lot to take in.

"I mean, we were really in shock all day yesterday, so today is our first day waking up after the fact," said Lorrie Sullenberger.

The people who live in the same Danville neighborhood as Captain Sullenberger are also proud of their neighbor, but not surprised by his actions.

"It strikes me as pretty Sully," one neighbor said.

Karlene Roberts knows Sullenberger on a professional level, she directs the Center for Catastrophic Risk Management at the University of California, Berkeley, where Sullenberger has spoken about management and communication.

"He and the flight crew, the in-flight crew, got all of those people out of there and that takes some considerable skills on the part of everyone, in particular the commanding officer," Roberts said.

Many neighbors are looking forward to shaking his hand when he gets home and spending a little bit more time saying "hi" when they see him on the street.

"There's moments in all of our lives when you wonder, 'gosh why I'm here,' and this was Sully's reasons for being here," family friend Jim Walberg said. "He's just an amazing guy; he did the right thing at the right time as he was trained to."

Sullenberger's neighbors are not his only fans. There is already a "fan page" for Sullenberger on Facebook with more than 12,000 fans, many of whom have posted messages lauding him and his crew as true heroes.

New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg showed off the key to the city Friday that he plans to give "Sully." Captain Sullenberger's actions prevented what could have been a disaster over Manhattan. Bloomberg says he will hold on to the key until he has the chance to present it to him.

Captain Sullenberger is still on the East Coast and is being sequestered there. His family is still deciding whether to go and join him or wait for his return back to Danville.

ABC7's David Louie spoke with some of Captain Sullenberger's colleagues in the industry who believe his maturity was a key factor in his heroic efforts. For that part of the story, click here.