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Hero Pilot 'Sully' Sullenberger Tries To Stay Grounded

Pilot Chesley Sullenberger's wild ride started when he landed a US Airways jet plop-solid perfect onto the icy surface of the Hudson River on Jan. 15, saving all 155 passengers on board. Fame has followed ever since, and Sullenberger's nickname, "Sully," has even become a one-word phrase for coolness in a crisis.

He's a hero to the nation, but Sullenberger says his story is really more about a nation that needs a hero.

It "happened at a time in the world's history when people needed good news," Sullenberger tells NPR's Scott Simon.

"They were searching for reasons to be hopeful again," he says. "They wanted to be reassured that people could be competent and that good could be done."

New Yorkers like to tell him where they were when they heard about the landing. He was an honored guest at President Obama's inauguration; Mayor Michael Bloomberg gave him the key to the city of New York; and he received a standing ovation with his crew at the Super Bowl. Come New Year's, he'll be the grand marshal of the Rose Parade.

But Sullenberger is quick to credit everyone else involved with the dramatic rescue. It required teamwork, Sullenberger says, "not only on the part of my crew, but the admirable behavior of the passengers during the evacuation and the rescue."

"And, of course, you can't say enough about New York Waterway, whose ferries were there in less than four minutes," he adds. "They took almost all the passengers off." He's careful to list the emergency teams that responded to the crisis, too. It was as if "all of New York and New Jersey were opening their arms to us."

But it was Sullenberger's name that was cheered when he reunited with co-pilot Jeffrey Skiles in October to finally complete the Charlotte-to-New York round-trip flight that lost power back in January after what officials called a "double bird strike" — geese hitting the engines.

After announcing, "This is your captain speaking," on the first leg of the flight, Sullenberger says he quickly realized he now needs to wait a few seconds before continuing so everyone in the cabin can stop cheering and hear the rest of what he has to say.

If passengers miss his words, however, they can catch up with his new book, Highest Duty: My Search for What Really Matters. The book goes beyond the Hudson landing to share a life that reflects the turmoil of America in the early 21st century.

"The economic tsunami has hit all airline employees," he says. "With the 2001 terror attacks, airline bankruptcies, pension terminations, loss of pay, changes in work rules — we're all working harder and longer than we used to."

The stress can take its toll on a family. "I've missed half or two-thirds of my children's lives," he says, so he takes special care to be engaged with them when they do have time together. "They also need to see me choose to be with them as much as I can."

Getting a hero's treatment on top of everything else can test a marriage, too. "All these life-changing events that happen so suddenly put great stress on one's relationship," Sullenberger says. "I think sometimes it pushes people away, and sometimes it can make them cling to each other and make them stronger — sometimes a bit of both, depending on the day."

"We've had wonderful opportunities," he says, "but it started with a traumatic event."

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