The Pilot Navigates FateNew York Times
January 06, 2010
Watch Capt. Chesley B. Sullenberger III on a red carpet, and at any given moment three or four hands are on him. There are taps on his arms, hands outstretched and palms on his back from fans. People want to reach him, touch him, thank him, take the measure of a media legend.
He obliges, again and again, even after an exhausted publicist tells him, “Now you are officially excused.” There is time for one more photo, always.
Captain Sullenberger was on the receiving line on Tuesday night for the premiere of “Brace for Impact,” a one-hour documentary about his Jan. 15, 2009, landing in the Hudson River, which has its television debut on Sunday on TLC. He calls what he is doing “almost a new job,” as he is simultaneously selling urgent airline reforms, a memoir, a television documentary and a reassuring sense that there are indeed heroes among us.
He has learned to accept what he calls “the H-word,” he said, and how to handle “having a fire hose pointed at us” by the news media. The biggest surprise for him and the other crew members, he said, was not the attention but that it “has lasted for so long.”
Viewers have watched, for almost a year now, the celebritization of Captain Sullenberger, 58, and perhaps wondered why he has lingered in the spotlight and chosen not to return to the air full time. To a great extent he is gliding, swept up by the lasting public interest in his story. “In this age of fame seekers, fame found him,” said Denise Contis, a vice president at TLC.
But his celebrity is also, in part, his own doing. Once it became apparent that “the event,” as he is apt to call the landing, was gaining wide attention, he said he and his first officer on US Airways Flight 1549, Jeffrey Skiles, “felt an intense obligation to use it for good, for our profession.”
Testimony on Capitol Hill followed that January flight, as did a slew of other public appearances. There was Sully last month auctioning his pilot’s cap for charity. There was Sully last week at the Tournament of Roses Parade.
Captain Sullenberger’s book “Highest Duty: My Search for What Really Matters” was published in October, sparking another round of interviews. It has sold about 92,000 copies to date, according to Nielsen BookScan, which tracks about 75 percent of retail sales. His contract with William Morrow calls for a second book; it is coming eventually, he said.
Occasionally the publicity can backfire; some winced at an Associated Press headline in November, “Hero pilot Sully enjoys ‘rock star sex,’ ” the upshot of an interview on NBC.
Clearly there is no US Airways manual for aviator fame. But the Sullenbergers did have at least a modicum of media guidance. On the afternoon of the Jan. 15 river landing, a program starring Captain Sullenberger’s wife, Lorrie — the owner of a women’s gym who had been the host of fitness segments for the ABC affiliate in San Francisco — was being proposed to the creators of Oprah Winfrey’s forthcoming cable channel.
The producer who was pitching the show, Daniel H. Birman, was on the telephone with Ms. Sullenberger as her husband frantically tried to reach her after the landing. In the TLC documentary Ms. Sullenberger recalls her immediate reaction to his call: to phone her children’s school and instruct the staff to shield them from any televised information about the incident.
After Ms. Sullenberger called Mr. Birman back, he recalled telling her: “Your husband’s a hero. Your life is about to change.”
But media handlers don’t materialize out of thin air. Scrambling to find someone who could field the crush of interview requests, Mr. Birman called Priya David, who was a CBS News correspondent at the time, and asked for recommendations. She put him in touch with Alex Clemens, the founder of a public relations firm in San Francisco, to whom she is now engaged.
Mr. Clemens swiftly became the Sullenberger family spokesman, handling the logistics of the pilot’s first interview (with Katie Couric of CBS) and eventually taking control of his Facebook fan page, which had amassed 590,000 fans.
“There are certainly a crush of requests for his time, for his imprimatur,” Mr. Clemens said. “He could spend the rest of his life working to fulfill them all, and he wouldn’t fit them all in.”
More than a month after the landing Mr. Birman started talking to the Sullenbergers about a documentary, which was bought by TLC last spring.
Sitting in a suite at the Essex House hotel in Manhattan on Tuesday morning, Captain Sullenberger said he wanted to contribute to projects, particularly the books and the documentary, that would be suited to history.
“Out of my entire career, my life will be judged on 3 minutes and 28 seconds on one flight on one day,” he said, clasping his hands. “So it was important to me that there be an accurate record.”
Tuesday’s media tour started at “Live With Regis and Kelly,” continued with a taping of “The Joy Behar Show” and wrapped up after dark at the Walter Reade Theater at Lincoln Center, where 25-plus photographers and camera crews had places on the red carpet for the documentary premiere. There the interviews came in rapid succession: the gossip columnist Michael Musto, then a Canadian newspaper reporter, then blogger for New York magazine. A tap on the reporter’s wrist meant time was up. “Hope you like the documentary,” Captain Sullenberger told the blogger.
To Mr. Birman both the river landing and the documentary about it are “about facing mortality and getting a do-over.” The documentary shows Captain Sullenberger in a helicopter retracing his aerial steps for the first time, demonstrating just how well the Hudson served as a watery runway. He is also shown with the partly intact plane at a salvage yard. Mr. Birman said that his cameras were among the first to visit New York Tracon, short for terminal radar approach control, since the Sept. 11 attacks.
The re-creations of the flight leave little doubt that, as one official with the National Transportation Safety Board remarked last year, a number of “miracle requirements” were fulfilled that day. Retaining at least some part of his modesty, Captain Sullenberger is careful to say in interviews that he’s unsure whether his actions meet his personal definition of heroism. “But,” he said, “I very quickly understood how people could feel that way, why they felt like they needed to feel that way.”
Along the same lines, when he talked about being the “de facto spokesperson for my profession,” he was careful to note that he had been “chosen by circumstance.”
Nevertheless he remains a pilot — and the event remains a plot — out of Hollywood casting. For some people, like David Carlos, one of the Flight 1549 passengers at Tuesday’s premiere, all the attention can be explained rather easily. The story, he said, simply had a “good ending.”