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Conversation With Sully Sullenberger

Retired 'Miracle on the Hudson' pilot talks heroism, reinvention and fear of flying

En español | It's been five years since the "miracle on the Hudson." How did that event change your life?

It was, at first, very difficult, very shocking, but with time you have to make it part of you, not simply something that happened to you.

What about you is different?

It's made me think that whatever trivial things I have to deal with don't even hold a candle to that.

Conversation With Sully Sullenberger

Sully Sullenberger, retired "Miracle on the Hudson" pilot, talks personal achievement and reinvention. — Jonathan Sprague/Redux

Tell me about meeting President Obama several days later at his first inauguration.

When my wife, Lorrie, and I met the president at a ball, he turned to her and said, "America considers him a hero." My wife said, "Well, the world may think him a hero, but he still snores!" This hero stuff doesn't get you much past the front door no matter who you are.

How important was your experience in the sky above the Hudson?

Training in flight simulators, you can't practice a water landing. We had 208 seconds to solve a problem for which we had never specifically trained. The experience and the judgment my crew and I had developed over many decades allowed us to have the creative reserve to deliver the airplane full of people to the surface intact.

By then, you had already worked a long time to change aviation's cockpit culture.

In the bad old days, captains were not good leaders, they didn't build teams, they were arrogant and autocratic.

And now?

Pilots learn to use human skills to communicate information and make decisions collectively, which creates a shared sense of responsibility among the team for better outcomes.

Your new thing is trying to change the health care industry. Is the medical world like aviation's old cowboy culture?

Medical professionals are as skilled and as dedicated as any, but they operate within a fragmented system that has not progressed as far as we have in aviation.

Why have you gotten involved in this issue?

In this country, there are about 200,000 preventable deaths every year, including medical errors, which are mostly system failures and health care–associated conditions like hospital-acquired infections. That's the equivalent of three airliners crashing every day with no survivors, something that would not be tolerated in my world.

Why is it tolerated in the medical world?

Because the deaths happen one at a time and the failures are often buried, we have not yet achieved the public awareness and the political will to change it.

Why not?

When I testified before Congress after the Hudson River landing, Congressman James Oberstar of Minnesota said, "Safety begins in the boardroom." That's as true in medicine as it is in aviation. It always boils down to leadership.

What about gridlock in Congress?

I had dinner two years ago in Washington with a dozen people, some from the World Health Organization, a former health minister of a European country, two congressmen. I took a straw poll of who thought we would finally achieve improvements in safety that would not only save lives but save money. One congressman's response stunned me. He said, "Even if I get my colleagues across the aisle to agree to this, I would be suspicious of their motives, of their agenda."

Did you respond?

After I regained my composure, I said, "Congressman, if we could get both sides of the aisle to agree, would their motivation really matter to you?" He said he guessed not. The question is, will it be in 20 years after 4 million preventable deaths? My vote is to do it now.

My wife is totally freaked out about flying. What can you tell her?

Never take off your seat belt unless you need to go to the bathroom.

Hugh Delehanty is the former editor in chief of AARP media properties and the coauthor with New York Knicks president Phil Jackson of Eleven Rings and Sacred Hoops.

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