SAN FRANCISCO — Capt. Sully had 15 minutes. Like most one-name, world-famous celebrities, he also had a press rep monitoring every second. There were other interviews, after all, many others, before the morning was out.
"I miss going to Tahoe," said the man formally known as Capt. Chesley B. Sullenberger III. "We'll get there sometime."
A year ago, the hero pilot of "The Miracle on the Hudson" could book a long weekend in Tahoe with his family, walk through an airport unnoticed, eat out without signing a cocktail napkin. Then fate, as in a flock of geese, collided with U.S. Airways Flight 1549, bound from New York to Charlotte, N.C.
From the moment on Jan. 15, 2009, that Sullenberger expertly piloted an Airbus 320 with two failed engines and 155 passengers and crew members into the Hudson River, he was a hero. The surprise, to himself more than anyone else, is that he remains a star today.
"My guess about that is that people really want to hear something hopeful," said the 58-year-old, gray-haired father of two teenagers, no doubt for the umpteenth time.
The former Air Force pilot may have a point. In a year that started with record foreclosures and ended with record unemployment, no wonder what he calls "three minutes and 28 seconds on one flight in one day" landed on so many "Best of 2009" lists.
Now, with hopeful stories still in short supply, it looks like Sullenberger's year of living famously, highlighted by a VIP seat at the President's inauguration and the Grand Marshal's seat at the Rose Parade, is getting an extended run. The anniversary of the flight is not only bringing reunions with those who were aboard Flight 1549, but also a new onslaught of media attention.
Kicking it off was the premiere of "Brace for Impact," a documentary about the Hudson landing that aired on TLC on Jan. 10. Still to come: weeks of media appearances, months of speaking engagements and a second book to write, on an as-yet undetermined topic.
His first, "Highest Duty: My Search for What Really Matters," co-authored with journalist Jeffrey Zaslow and published in October, is one of four books spawned by the flight. One, by a veteran journalist and pilot, William Langwiesche, dares to credit the design of the Airbus 320 as one factor in the fated flight's happy ending. Two others are devoted to survivor stories.
Sullenberger_ "Call me Sully, please," – whose flight duties at U.S. Airways now revolve around his newfound commitments, has clearly learned to navigate the press as deftly as he has an airliner.
He has barely touched down in Danville, the tony San Francisco Bay Area suburb he calls home, when he has been called again to inspire another starry-eyed crowd or wax serious on the importance of pilot training and airline reforms.
All the media attention, "like having a fire hose pointed at us," has given him the opportunity to "do things that matter," he said, like cast a spotlight on his favorite charity, St. Jude Children's Research Hospital in Memphis.
Such sentiments only burnish his sterling image as a national folk hero. But so do the passengers on Flight 1549 who have become media regulars themselves. Kevin Quirk , a journalist and co-author of "Brace for Impact: Miracle on the Hudson Survivors Share their Stories of Near Death and Hope for New Life," said that all 25 of the passengers profiled in the book heap lavish praise on Sullenberger "as the angel who saved their lives."
One of those, Barry Leonard, who commutes from his bed and bath product companies in New York to his home in Charlotte, N.C. on a weekly basis, was sitting in his usual seat, 1C, when geese flew into the planes engines.
As he tells it, Capt. Sully waited until everyone was off the plane to disembark. He went through the aisles making sure everyone was off before boarding the same life raft as Leonard. Then, when the rescue ferries came, Leonard said, "Sullenberger said, "'Women and children and injured first.' He was always in complete control." Leonard, who had cracked his sternum jumping into the icy waters, and could have died of hypothermia, now regularly shares his story and that of the flight and the pilot, he says, "because I want to express my gratitude to the people who saved us."
"People ask me why I think we were spared," Leonard said. "I say it was pilot skill and God's will."
Sullenberger credits luck and experience and his crew, including his first officer, Jeffrey Skiles. "I'm not sure why," he said, "that he doesn't get the attention he deserves."