Photography: The Collection of Capt. Chesley B. “Sully” Sullenberger
Photography: The Collection of Capt. Chesley B. “Sully” Sullenberger

Another unforgettable flight in Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger’s life took him into the skies above North Texas when he was just 16.

On January 15, 2009, a freezing cold Thursday, US Airways Flight 1549 suffered a bird strike that changed a routine flight into a harrowing emergency. Capt. Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger safely landed the plane on the frigid waters of the Hudson River. The water landing became known as “the Miracle on the Hudson” and Sullenberger became known as a national hero.

But the miracle would have never happened had Sullenberger not learned to fly as a teen in Texas, a story told in the autobiographical Highest Duty: My Search for What Really Matters, which was published in October 2009, just nine months after the momentous US Airways flight. In it Sullenberger recounts another flight that lives vividly in his mind: his first solo, at age 16, one late Saturday afternoon on June 3, 1967, from a grass airstrip in the North Texas town of Sherman.

He’d known he wanted to fly since the age of 5, a desire reinforced every time jet fighters from nearby Perrin Air Force Base would crisscross the sky above his childhood home outside of Denison, Texas. He built his first model  — a replica of Lindbergh’s Spirit of St. Louis — when he was 6 years old. When he was 11, he took he first trip on a plane. When he was 16, he asked his dad for flying lessons and got them from a no-nonsense crop-dusting pilot named L. T. Cook Jr., who had a landing strip on his property in Sherman.

“He saw I was serious about flying and that I had an obvious enthusiasm, despite my low-key demeanor,” Sully writes. “He said he’d charge me six dollars per hour for the airplane. That was the ‘wet rate’ because it included fuel. For his time training me, he asked for another three dollars an hour.” Sully’s parents paid for the airplane, and Sully came up with the instructor’s fee from his job as a church janitor.

Cook would give him 16 lessons of about 30 air minutes each over a couple of months. On June 3, after 10 minutes of flying together, he told Sully to land the plane and hopped out. “OK,” Cook said. “Take it up and land three times by yourself.”

Sully was going to solo.

Finding himself alone at the end of an airstrip for the very first time, he went through everything on his checklist, tightened his hand on the control stick, took a breath, released the brakes, and began his takeoff. “Mr. Cook had told me that I’d be leaving the ground more quickly than I was used to. The reason? The plane was now lighter with him not in it. ...

“Climbing to eight hundred feet above the ground, and then circling the field, I felt an exhilarating freedom. I also felt a certain mastery. After listening, watching, asking questions, and studying hard, I had achieved something. Here I was, alone in the air. ...

“As I flew, it was as if I could hear his voice. Use the rudder to keep the controls coordinated. Even though he wasn’t there in the airplane, his words were still with me.”

The teenager flew over a pond and around a field, the town of Sherman off on his left. But, Sully writes, his goal was not to enjoy the view. “My goal was to do this well enough so that Mr. Cook would let me do it again. ...

Which he did. Sully would go on to fly thousands of hours — almost 20,000 at the writing of the book — during his career. But that first solo experience, which lasted all of 9 minutes, was a “crucial first step.” He reminds readers of another crucial step: “In 1903, Orville Wright’s first flight had traveled a distance of forty yards, had risen twenty feet in the air, and had lasted just twelve seconds.”

At age 16, his aviation career just beginning, Sully had less than eight hours in the air on that day in North Texas. But he had what he needed to go on to put him in the cockpit on that fateful day above the Hudson in New York: “Mr. Cook had given me confidence. He had given me permission to discover that I could get a plane safely into the air and then safely back to the ground. That first solo flight served as confirmation that this would be my livelihood, and my life.”


Quotes from Highest Duty: My Search for What Really Matters, by Chesley B. Sullenberger with Jeffrey Zaslow, copyright 2009, William Morrow (Harper Collins). Find the book on Amazon.

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