Purdue honors hero pilot, alumnus Capt. Chesley 'Sully' Sullenberger

September 2, 2010

Airline passengers leave a US Airways Airbus 320 jetliner that safely ditched in the frigid waters of the Hudson River in New York on Jan. 15, 2009, after a flock of birds knocked out both its engines. (Associated Press photo/Janis Krums)

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WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. - Purdue University will welcome home the Hero on the Hudson, Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger, Nov. 12 as its guest of honor for the annual President's Council Weekend.

Just after takeoff from LaGuardia Airport on Jan. 15, 2009, a flock of geese took out both engines on his US Airways airliner. Sullenberger told his passengers to brace for a hard landing   and then set the plane down safely on the Hudson River. With the Manhattan skyline as a backdrop, he stayed on board until all 155 passengers and crew were safely off the plane.

Among the honors he will receive at a luncheon for council members that day will be a Distinguished Alumnus Award from the College of Liberal Arts, which was home to industrial psychology when he earned his Purdue master's degree in 1973. President France A. Córdova issued the invitation to Sullenberger. He also will be recognized that evening during the President's Council annual dinner. Both events are by invitation only.

Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger

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"Captain Sullenberger's skill and calm in the face of a singular challenge saved the lives of everyone aboard US Airways Flight 1549 and inspired the entire world," Córdova says. "The poise and dignity he displayed in receiving the international acclaim that has followed set him apart as a true American hero."

At a news conference the day after the landing, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg praised Sullenberger's piloting skills and courage.

"The pilot did a masterful job of landing the plane in the river and then making sure that everybody got out," Bloomberg said. "He walked the plane twice after everybody else was off and tried to verify that there was nobody else on board."

A former Delta Airlines pilot told CNN: "I don't think there's enough praise to go around for someone who does something like this. This is something you really can't prepare for. You really don't practice water landings in commercial airplanes. Just the sheer expertise he demonstrated is amazing."

A native of rural Texas who learned to fly as a teenager, Sullenberger received his undergraduate degree from the U.S. Air Force Academy in June 1973. Within weeks he was at Purdue taking summer classes to complete his master's work.

Chesley Burnett "Sully" Sullenberger III, senior class photo, U.S. Air Force Academy, Class of 1973.

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In his book, "Highest Duty: My Search for What Really Matters," Sullenberger says his study at Purdue prepared him well for the challenges he would face.

He says industrial psychology (human factors) is "a discipline focused on designing machines that take into account human abilities as well as human limitations. How do humans act and react? What can humans do and what can't they do? How should machines be designed so people can use them more effectively?

"At Purdue, I studied how machines and systems should be designed. How do engineers create cockpit configurations and instrument-panel layouts taking into account where pilots might place their hands or where eyes might focus, or what items might be a distraction? I believed learning these things could have applications for me down the road, and I was right.

"In my later years, as I focused on airline safety issues, I realized how much my formal education allowed me to view the world in ways that helped me set priorities, so I understood the why as well as the how."

Sullenberger has retired from US Airways. 

Writer:  Jeanne V. Norberg, 765-494-2084, jnorberg@purdue.edu