Purdue Hero Sullenberger’s Legacy More Than a Miracle

His heroic acts as the captain during the emergency landing of a passenger plane on New York’s Hudson River in January 2009, known now as “The Miracle on the Hudson,” made Sully Sullenberger famous. But that single deed will not be his only lasting legacy.

Lifelong learning. Continuous personal and professional growth. A constant pursuit of excellence. These underlying personal principles, as much as his historic feat, were at the heart of Sullenberger’s appearance Feb. 24 at a nearly full Elliott Hall of Music.

The hour-long presentation, called “208 Seconds: A Lifetime of Lessons” and bookended by standing ovations, was part of the Giant Leaps Series of events. Giant Leaps Series events are among many campus happenings designed to celebrate Purdue’s 150th anniversary.

Captain Sully Sullenberger 150 Giant Leaps“Throughout my career, I’ve reminded myself to avoid complacency and remain vigilant, because I never knew when or even if I might one day face an ultimate challenge,” said Sullenberger, who received his master’s degree in industrial psychology from Purdue in 1973. “I never knew on which 208 seconds my career might someday be judged. We need to keep learning, growing, stretching ourselves. And we have to know how to innovate.”

The evening began with an introduction by Scott Niswonger, a member of the Deans Council for Purdue University Polytechnic institute and a Purdue Research Foundation board member, and a short video account of the emergency water landing.

Niswonger, also a Purdue graduate and pilot, discussed the little-known fact that Sullenberger was a flight instructor in gliders and flew the plane that towed gliders up to a safe altitude to begin their gliding flights during his time at the University.

Striving for Excellence

In a talk that was equal parts motivational, intimate and introspective, Sullenberger wove together an account of the “miracle” event, which lasted less than four minutes but resulted in enduring fame. He frequently shared an anecdote from the famous flight and the events surrounding it, followed by an explanation of the personal factors behind his actions or a lesson learned.

“I’ve tried to do in my entire life what I’ve encouraged others to do: Never stop investing in yourselves, never stop learning, never stop growing — either personally or professionally,” he said. “We made it look easy, but it wasn’t. What we do is a very difficult task and we do it every day, every month, every year for decades — with complete strangers. How? Teamwork. That’s how we stay motivated.”

Sullenberger traced the seeds of his desire for lifelong growth as far back as his grandparents and then his parents, whose values were forged during World War II. Sullenberger believes he inherited this value system, and that others should embrace it as well.

“I had the good fortune to grow up in a safe, stable environment in which education was important, ideas were valued and striving for excellence was expected,” he said. “I grew up with a sense of civic duty. I believe we have an obligation to be intellectually curious, to be scientifically literate, to make decisions based on facts, not fears or falsehoods.”

Lifetime of Preparation

In many ways, Sullenberger said his upbringing and ensuing training equipped him to be the right person at the right time to handle the almost inconceivable events of Jan. 15, 2009. That frigid afternoon in New York City, Capt. Sullenberger masterfully landed a commercial airliner on the Hudson River, saving the lives of all 155 passengers and crew aboard US Airways Flight 1549.

Sullenberger attended the U.S. Air Force Academy, flew jet fighters for the Air Force and had been a pilot for 42 years before that historic 208 seconds of heroism happened. He also had continued his formal education, including a master’s degree from Purdue.

Industrial psychology, often called human factors today, is the scientific study of organizational and workplace behavior with the goal of improved performance.

“One way we’ve made aviation safer through the past decades is by observing how the best captains lead and build teams, how the crews that are the most effective communicate, how they trap errors and make decisions,” said Sullenberger, also an aviation safety expert and accident investigator. “I helped to develop the leadership and team-building course at my airline and I taught the first class. These are things I’ve been working on my entire life. Now I’ve proved, in the most dramatic way possible, that all the things we taught, work in the real world — even in the most exceptional crises.”

Sullenberger, who received the Neil A. Armstrong Medal of Excellence in 2010, along with the Distinguished Alumnus Award from the College of Liberal Arts, and an honorary doctorate from Purdue in 2011, believes his unique education at the University helped refine his critical skills. “Coming from a very structured environment at the Air Force Academy, it was an opportunity to see other ways of thinking about the world,” he said. “It was a great foundation for all the aviation safety work I’ve done throughout my career.”

Passing It On

Louis Tay, associate professor of industrial and organizational psychology, was among the 5,000 people in attendance at the event. He was extremely impressed with Sullenberger’s talk, retelling how he remained calm under the most extreme circumstances and drawing on his behavioral studies, training and years of flying to be prepared for the intensity of the emergency landing.

Further, Tay said, Sullenberger has made it his life mission to help the airline industry learn and improve its safety measures. “His is a story about post-traumatic growth. Instead of being overcome by this event, he grew from it. That level of purpose and commitment is ingrained in him.”

Morgan Montgomery, a 21-year-old Purdue senior from Carmel, was struck by Sullenberger’s expertise as an innovative thinker in the integration of psychology and flight technology. She believes she will put Sullenberger’s lessons into action when she graduates and begins work for Rolls- Royce, where her finance and management studies will merge with the company’s focus on aerospace technology.

“This was a wonderful opportunity to hear from a hero, and a Purdue hero at that,” Montgomery said. “Not being an engineering student, it’s always nice to hear about that industry and how other professions fit into it. For me, it was a great opportunity to learn.”

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