Profiles in Badassery: Chesley Sullenberger

The secret to football success is having a steady leader. Remember Drew Brees. Yes, he can be fiery to get his team up before a game, but on the field he is calm and collected. In the 2000 Ohio State game he threw a horrible interception, but two passes later threw the greatest pass in Purdue football history. His ability to shake off adversity is one of the traits that made him such a great leader when he was in West Lafayette. It is also what has made him a Super Bowl MVP and cover boy of Madden '11.

That leads to today's profile in badassery. Chesley Sullenberger has a Master's from Purdue, thus meeting the qualifications. He also only has one major moment that stood out, but it was one of the most pressure packed moments a human being can face. On November 12th Purdue will honor him, thus opening the door for him to leading SHOUT the next day against Michigan. His ability to be calm under pressure is the reason he is today's badass.

Early Years

Chesley Burnett Sullenberger III is a fantastic name. It sounds like he should be a baron of some kind, or at least a third generation politician from upstate New York. Captain Sully, as he should be referred to from now on, would probably punch you for stating he is a snewty New Yorker though. He's a Texan and proud of it. Born January 23rd, 1951, Captain Sully was a genius early on. He tested consistently in the 99th percentile in academic subjects and even could have joined MENSA at age 12.

He has some other interesting skills, thus making him a candidate for the next series of Dos Equis commercials. He was a first chair flute player (as a guy!) and president of the Latin Club. The man certainly has eclectic tastes.

Captain Sully's flying career begin at age 16, when he learned to fly small planes at a private airstrip near Denison, Texas. He eventually enrolled at the U.S. Air Force Academy and was selected as part of the cadet glider program. This would be a huge fact to store away for later, as it helped teach him the skills necessary for his dramatic moment. By the end of his freshman year he was a student instructor pilot.

Sully graduated from the Air Force Academy in 1972 with the Outstanding Cadet in Airmanship Award as the top pilot. After getting his officer's commission, the Air Force sent him to West Lafayette and Purdue University.

Time at Purdue

I find it very cool that Sully was a grad student at Purdue at the same time my dad was finishing up pharmacy school. I wonder if they ever crossed paths, especially since my dad lived in the Young Grad House is final year. There aren't a lot of other details about Sully's time at Purdue, but I thought that was a cool bit of information.

After Purdue

There are certain occupations that make a man a badass sight unseen. Fighter Pilot is one of them. One of my best friends from high school is currently a captain in the AirForce. He's not a pilot, but he's been taken up in an F-16. He said that as frightening as it was, it was the thrill of a lifetime. Captain Sully flew F-4 Phantom II's from 1975 to 1980 while he was serving his Air Force commission. He eventually became a flight leader and training officer.

The F-4 was one of the first Supersonic fighter jets ever and had a top speed of Mach II. For the unenlightened, that is twice the speed of sound. If Sully can keep his wits while traveling in a metal tube at twice the speed of sound (possibly even during combat) a little landing in the Hudson River is nothing.

After the Air Force

Upon leaving the Air Force Sully became a commercial pilot for U.S. Airways in 1980. He had a fairly uneventful career too. He logged over 27,000 hours of flight experience and has been able to open his own safety consulting business. He would also serve as an instructor and general safety specialist for several years and among several different groups.

Since it seems like all things Purdue eventually lead to NASA, Sully's life has even touched there. He worked with NASA scientists to co-author a paper on error-inducing contexts in aviation. As a safety hawk, he has helped improve airline emergency evacuation procedures. This is something that his passengers were very thankful for on January 15, 2009.

The Hudson River Landing

I have a confession to make. I have never been the best passenger on an airplane. When I took a trip to Seattle at the age of 5 a bad takeoff in Indianapolis scared the crap out of me, and I have been affected ever since. I travel enough that most of the time I am fine, but after a takeoff from Denver last year in a thunderstorm basically drenched me with terror sweat I can tell it is still there. The events of US Airways Flight 1549 would be enough to make me never get on a plane again.

It is also what sets Captain Sully apart from other men, and even at a higher badass level than your average fighter pilot. We all know the basic story: A bird strike as he was taking off from Laguardia caused both engines to fail. At this point, I probably would have panicked, gotten on the plane's PA, and told the passengers to, "light ‘em up because we're going down." I might have even pulled a Steven Slater and grabbed a beer or two from the beverage cart. Sully never even broke a sweat.

Despite the lack of thrust, a major necessity when it comes to keeping a plane in the air, he managed to have a controlled, level decent and belly-landing in the Hudson River. I am sure his experience as a glider pilot with the Air Force was essential to this, and may have even kept all 155 people on board alive. Here is video of Sully describing the landing:


The man deserves a standing ovation for what he did. Once the plane had stopped, everyone was able to calmly (as possible) evacuate the plane and Sully even walked up and down the aisles twice to make sure everyone was off. Local commercial vessels helped rescue the passengers before the boat sank or hypothermia (in the 36 degree water) sat in. All 155 people on board survived and there were only five serious injuries.

Sully since then

The video above explains it all. The man is a hero. The NTSB has labeled it as the most successful ditching in aviation history.

Naturally, Sully has been lauded over the past 20 months as the hero he deserves to be. What impresses me the most is his calm demeanor and his willingness to attribute the success to his team on the flight deck and on the plane.

This plays in perfectly with this weekend. We're going into an atmosphere tomorrow that will have a lot of electricity. Notre Dame fans are ready to see coach Kelly and the excitement for the Irish will be palpable. We're facing a tough situation, but we will only win if we borrow from Sully's attitude.

1. We must stay completely calm

2. The players must rely on their teammates to overcome a difficult situation.

Performing a tricky emergency landing is far more difficult than winning a football game, but the same principles apply. Captain Sully is a badass not because he has performed great feats of strength, but because he has remained in control of his situation. It is a lesson I hope our players carry into tomorrow.

I am ready, guys. Go tear it up tomorrow. Every Purdue fan believes in you.

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