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Professional Ethics

February 8, 2009

Just when you thought Chesley Sullenberger couldn’t be more admirable, a news story comes out that shows how much integrity the man has. He borrowed a book from his town library and the book was lost in an airplane that had crashed in the Hudson river. He contacted the library to tell them that the book was lost and to pay the fine. They waived all fines and dedicated the replacement book to him [1]. What was the book about? Professional ethics.

For those who might not be aware, Sullenberger is the pilot who miraculously landed the U.S. Airways jet in the Hudson River, saving all aboard. A national hero overnight, this man has been exceedingly modest and repeatedly attributed the success of the landing to the “team”.  The recently released tapes of the conversation between Captain Chesley B. Sullenberg III and the air traffic control tower revealed a surrealistic five minutes between take-off from La Guardia Airport and landing in the Hudson  [2].  In the terse conversation, the good Captain could not have been more succinct. When the aircraft lost power in both engines, he said, “My aircraft”. His first officer replied, “Your aircraft.”  He then addressed his next remarks to the traffic controller, “Ah, this is, uh, Cactus 1539. Hit birds. We lost thrust in both engines. We’re turning back towards La Guardia.” After listening to options of returning to La Guardia or using the Teeterborough Airport, Captain Sullenberg said, “Unable.” A few seconds later, he said, “We’re going to be in the Hudson.” The traffic controller couldn’t believe his ears, “I’m sorry, say again, Cactus?” Soon after, he had landed the plane in the icy Hudson river and all 155 people on board left safely.

Captain Sullenberger has given our country a lesson in humility, honesty and honor. This is clearly a man that we all would be happy to entrust our lives to.  But there is much more to the man than is apparent. According to Wikipedia [3], he is not just an airplane pilot.  At age 12, his IQ was considered high enough so that he joined Mensa International. He obtained his pilots license at 14.  He graduated from the U.S. Air Force Academy, where he received the Outstanding Cadet in Airmanship Award. After graduation, he obtained a master’s degree in industrial psychology at Purdue and also holds a master’s degree in public administration from the University of Northern Colorado. He served as a fighter pilot for the U.S. Air Force, piloting McDonnel Douglas F-4 Phantom II from 1973-1980, rising to the rank of captain. He became a flight leader and training officer with experience in Europe, Pacific, and U.S. While in the Air Force, he served on the official aircraft accident investigation board.

From 1980 to now, he has been a commercial airlines pilot for U.S. Airways. He is the “safety chairman” of the Airline Pilots Association, instrumental in developing and teaching the Crew Resource Management course used by U.S. Airways and taught to hundreds of other airline members. He not only holds an Airline Transport Pilot License for single and multi-engine airplanes but has a Commercial Pilot License rating in gliders. His experience with gliders is particularly interesting given that the problem he faced was how to land a commercial plane without power on the Hudson River. Landing a commercial jetliner in water is only rarely done. Aviation experts said that they could not recall another successful controlled water landing by a commercial airliner in the U.S. [4] The landing had to be as slow as possible [5] with nose-up to bring both wings into the water at the same time.

The passengers of the Airbus A320 US Airways Flight 1549 couldn’t have been luckier to have had Sullenberger as Captain of their airplane. Besides being a paragon of professionalism, the epitomy of ethics, and a pilot extraordinaire, Chesley Burnett Sullenberger is an air safety expert and teacher. It is difficult to imagine somebody more qualified to make an emergency landing in the middle of the Hudson. It almost seems as if this man trained from childhood to handle that emergency, not only to fly an airplane into a river but to deal with catastrophic accidents and implementing policy and teams to prevent such catastrophes.



2. Newman, B. (2009). US Airways pilot Sully on tape: ‘We’re going to be in the Hudson’, 02/05/2009. The Mercury News (San Jose).




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