Sullenberger wows crowd at Thunderbird benefit
INCLINE VILLAGE, Nev. – Four hours passed before pilot Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger was told all 155 passengers and crew on board Flight 1549 had survived a harrowing plunge into the Hudson River after hitting a flock of birds on Jan. 15, 2009.
The 60 year old recalled the moment during a speech at the Hyatt Regency Lake Tahoe Resort’s Lakeside Ballroom Saturday afternoon.
“Only then could I relax,” Sullenberger said. “But I was too spent – too used up – to celebrate.”
Sullenberger said he will never forget the intensity of the 208 seconds between three Canada geese destroying the engines of the U.S. Airways Airbus A320 and the impact with the water.
“It’s hard to describe what a life changing event that was,” Sullenberger said. A year and a half would go by before Sullenberger and his family would be able to properly celebrate the success of that “bitterly cold day” in New York.
“And when we did, guess where we decided to come,” Sullenberger said, hinting at Lake Tahoe’s shores, “to our haven, to this special place in our hearts.”
The Texas native has vacationed at Lake Tahoe for 30 years. His wife, Torrie, used to live and work here. Sullenberger’s two daughters have visited Lake Tahoe since they were just months old and were on skis when they were three years old.
So the Sullenberger family came to Lake Tahoe in June to celebrate a triumph born from a tragedy averted.
And that celebration led to Saturday’s speech, a benefit for the nonprofit Thunderbird Preservation Society. The society is dedicated to the preservation of George Whittell Jr.’s east shore estate.
Sullenberger’s speech was part of an effort to raise $1.5 million to keep Whittell’s 55-foot wooden speedboat, the Thunderbird Yacht, at Lake Tahoe.
Another $10 million is sought for an endowment to ensure the preservation of Whittell’s home, the Thunderbird Lodge, said Bill Watson, manager and curator of the yacht and lodge. No funding for long-term preservation of the property exists today.
“We are very much a historic site at risk,” Watson told the audience Saturday.
During their June visit to Lake Tahoe, Sullenberger’s wife, Lorrie Sullenberger, recalled being unable to get tickets to tour the lodge, instead spending the day on the Hyatt’s pier.
While relaxing in the sun, Lorrie Sullenberger recalled hearing the sound of the Thunderbird Yacht’s engine, looking out over the lake and realizing the estate’s 72-year-old speedboat was coming to them.
Crew members recognized Sullenberger and a tour of the lodge was arranged the next day. The Sullenbergers’ experience at the property far exceeded their expectations and they were inspired to help preserve the estate, Lorrie Sullenberger said.
“That’s how we ended up here today,” she said.
“We’re determined for this property never to be put at risk again,” Sully Sullenberger added.
More than 300 people attended Saturday’s speech. Sullenberger talked about the decision-making process during those critical seconds before the airplane hit the water, the need for core values and the importance of preserving American history.
He also managed to bring the crowd to uproariously laughter on more than one occasion, even while recalling stark details of the agonizing moments when Flight 1549 seemingly stopped in mid-air.
He described seeing the flock of geese 200 yards in front of the flight, but being powerless to avoid a collision. The sight and sound of dozens of geese hitting the plane was “like a Hitchcock movie,” Sullenberger said.
The pilot also recalled First Officer’s Jeffrey Skiles text message to Skiles’ wife in the 45 seconds before the plane hit the Hudson. Skiles choose not to call, fearing he would break down at a moment that demanded the utmost attention, Sullenberger said.
“I had an accident. Not O.K. Can’t talk now,” was Skiles’ message to his wife, one he realized could be his last, Sullenberger said.
The pilot received standing ovations from the audience at the start and end of his speech.
Since his retirement from flying in March 2010, Sullenberger has become a speaker on airline safety, developed new protocols for aviation safety and, along with Skiles, become the co-chairman of the Experimental Aircraft Association Young Eagles program to introduce young people to aviation.
He sent audience members away flying.
“I thought he was fabulous. He was humble, gracious and he gave his crew credit,” said Thunderbird volunteer Sherry McConnell.
Fellow volunteer Sue Bernheisel agreed, saying Sullenberger is more than the label most frequently placed to the pilot – hero.
“He’s not only a hero, but he’s a role model that we desperately need,” Bernheisel said.