Capt. Chesley Sullenberger — just call him Sully — has a special place in his heart for Cal Poly.
His oldest daughter, Kate, graduated from the university in 2015. The now retired airline pilot made famous in 2009 when he successfully guided US Airways Flight 1549 to a safe landing on the Hudson River in New York City said he has fond memories of walking through San Luis Obispo’s downtown farmers market.
And Sullenberger will return to SLO when he speaks Thursday at the Performing Arts Center.
“We’ve been supporters of Cal Poly for quite some time,” he said in a recent interview with The Tribune.
“It’s a very vibrant town,” he added. “We discovered that very early on.”
Invited to speak by the Cal Poly Center for Leadership, Sullenberger has worked as a motivational speaker, consultant and safety advocate since retiring as an airline captain in 2010. He said he and Flight 1549 co-pilot Jeff Skiles have been given a unique opportunity to “use this bully pulpit we’ve been given by circumstance” to advocate for improving the safety of the traveling public.
“It’s good that I’m recognized for this event,” he said of being forced to crash land an Airbus A320 after it lost both engines due to bird strikes in what later became known as “The Miracle on the Hudson.” “Being the face of a good event is a good job, it’s an important job.”
Sullenberger, who again rose to national prominence in 2016 when he was portrayed by actor Tom Hanks in a Clint Eastwood-directed biopic on the ordeal, said it gives him authority to challenge the airline travel industry. He said the industry has forgotten the need for utmost safety, “not just what’s expedient or cheapest.”
“I’m trying to undo the work of industry lobbyists around Capitol Hill,” he said.
Sullenberger cited as an example a 2010 aviation safety law passed after public pressure following a fatal airline crash in Buffalo, New York, in February 2009 and “improved pilot experience standards” and addressed pilot fatigue concerns. Previously, the minimum requirement of flight hours to become a commercial airline first officer was 250, and now it’s 1,500.
Sullenberger said those changes have led to this being “the safest period in aviation history.” But he said airline industry lobbyists are trying to roll standards back “to the bad old days.”
“This is a battle that is still being played out,” he said. “A game of Whack-a-Mole, but it’s not a game. It’s real life with real lives at stake.”
Though Sullenberger’s background is in aviation, which includes both military and commercial pilot experience, he said his skill set as a leader is transferable to other industries.
“What I see is that we’re all trying to solve the same problems,” he said.
Sullenberger spoke of his own role models, including his grandparents, parents and other pilots. He said pilots in particular demonstrate traits of “being good leaders and building teams.”
“I think part of it is having human skills and not just technical skills,” he said.
He said those skills were incredibly important working in an industry in which mergers have left just a handful of major airlines.
“We fly all the time with people we’ve never seen before,” he said.
He said it’s the job of a captain to “take this team of experts and turn them into an expert team,” Sullenberger said.
One arena in which Sullenberger’s leadership qualities haven’t lead him, however, is politics.
He resisted efforts by the Republican Party of California, which reportedly recruited Sullenberger as a political candidate against California Democratic Rep. Jerry McNerney.
Asked to evaluate the leadership of President Donald Trump, Sullenberger paused for a moment to reflect, then said, “Like a majority of Americans, I have been shocked by what has happened in this country.”
He said he feels a civic duty to be the best, most informed citizen he can be, “to be an independent, critical thinker” capable of making decisions “not based on facts, fears or falsehoods.”
As for his fame, he said he still gets recognized, “not all of the time but just often enough.”
He added that it’s happened less “since I shaved my mustache off.”
Sullenberger speaks at 8 p.m.; doors open at 7 p.m. Tickets are on sale at PACSLO.org.