Hudson River pilot was flying as a Texas teen

Chesley B. Sullenberger III
Chesley B. Sullenberger III

DALLAS - Mary Margaret Wilson had a gut feeling that her brother was at the controls when she heard about a US Airways plane making a safe landing in the Hudson River.

"When I first saw it on TV, they were saying it was an amazing landing, like one in a million," Wilson, a Dallas resident and the sister of pilot Chesley B. Sullenberger III, said Friday. "And I thought to myself, 'That's something my brother could do.'"

Many who knew Sullenberger from his days growing up in the North Texas town of Denison had similar reactions to the news that he piloted a jetliner to a smooth landing on the river after the plane lost engine power, saving 155 lives.

Folks in the town of 23,000 people located about 65 miles north of Dallas recalled a kind and serious student whose parents were a respected dentist and schoolteacher. And they remember him making headlines in the local newspaper for piloting a crop duster when he was 15.

"He was in the brainiac clique," said Mayor Robert Brady, who graduated from Denison High in 1969 with Sullenberger. "I knew who he was - a nice guy, the kind of guy you wanted to sit behind in class so you could cheat off him."

Sullenberger, who turns 58 next week, went by Burnett as a boy but is known as Sully today. He was president of his high school Latin club and the band council, played first flute and was an academic award winner.

Denison schools Superintendent Henry Scott said Sullenberger came from "a really fine family" who had lived in Denison for generations. Both parents are deceased. A street near the high school bears the name Hanna, his mother's maiden name.

"He was a guy who stood out as a leader and really an outstanding student," Scott said.

Wilson said her brother's interest in flying grew out of discussions with their father, a Navy veteran who shared stories of his military service. He built model airplanes, taking care to paint even the tiniest facial details onto the model pilots.

At 15, he worked a part-time job and begin splitting the cost of flying lessons with their dad, Wilson said. After he flew enough hours in the crop duster, he was able to fly solo and obtain a license.

Sometimes, he would take his younger sister for a ride.

"He was extremely professional," Wilson said. "He didn't cut any corners. I was never nervous flying with him. I don't really like going in small planes, but I would go with him anytime."

Sullenberger excelled after winning an appointment to the U.S. Air Force Academy, earning an airmanship award upon graduating, Wilson said. He flew F-4 fighter jets with the Air Force in the 1970s and then began working as a commercial pilot for Pacific Southwest Airlines in 1980. US Airways bought PSA in 1988.

Sullenberger has served on a board that investigated aircraft accidents and participated later in several National Transportation Safety Board investigations. He also runs a safety consulting firm and had been studying the psychology of keeping airline crews functioning even in the face of crisis.

"I think Burnett is a very duty-oriented person," Wilson said. "He is always looking to get better. He would be the one person who could land a plane in the water without any engines."