Capt Sully Sullenberger: Why 'Miracle on the Hudson' hero became suicide prevention activist

Sully Sullenberger has been selected as US representative on International Civil Aviation Organization's Council by Joe Biden, but he's also an activist


                            Capt Sully Sullenberger: Why 'Miracle on the Hudson' hero became suicide prevention activist
Captain Sully Sullenberger (Rabbani and Solimene Photography/Getty Images)

President Joe Biden announced his candidates for many high-profile ambassadorial positions on Tuesday, June 15, including professional diplomats with extensive foreign policy expertise and political allies. Aviation hero Captain Chelsea 'Sully' Sullenberger was one of them.

Former Interior secretary Ken Salazar has been appointed as ambassador to Mexico, and former deputy secretary of state Tom Nides has been appointed as ambassador to Israel. Dr Cynthia Ann Telles, a Democratic contributor who raised funds for Biden's campaign, has been nominated as ambassador to Costa Rica, while Julianne Smith, a longtime Biden adviser, has been chosen as the United States' representative to NATO.

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Sullenberger has been selected as the United States' representative on the International Civil Aviation Organization's Council. The retired airline pilot is best known as the “Hero on the Hudson” for the successful emergency landing of a US Airways flight on the Hudson River in 2009 with zero casualties. The event even inspired the blockbuster film 'Sully', starring Tom Hanks. But Sullenberger's heroism extends beyond the realm of his charge and profession. He is and remains, to this day, a suicide prevention activist.

When Robin Williams died on August 11, 2015, Sullenberger was moved and took to Facebook to share his own story of loss. "The recent news of Robin Williams' death has really hit home,'' he said in the post. "Like his family, and so many others around the world, I have a personal connection to suicide. In an effort to bring attention to the importance of suicide prevention, I am sharing my story.'' The post linked to his website where he wrote about the incident. "I still remember it was a Thursday,'' he wrote. "Until then, I knew only that he had his "blue funk," his dark days, but not the depths to which he was pulled." He said he was 44 when his father, a Texas dentist, killed himself on December 7, 1995. 

Actor Tom Hanks and retired pilot Chesley Burnett 'Sully' Sullenberger III attend The 22nd Annual Critics' Choice Awards at Barker Hangar on December 11, 2016, in Santa Monica, California (Christopher Polk/Getty Images)

'There are now more suicides than homicides'

Sullenberger Sr was released from the hospital after a major surgery and had a long recuperation ahead of him at home. Recalling this, Sullenberger wrote, "He thought he was being noble by sparing my mother the burden of caring for him." The pilot adds: "It may never have occurred to him that she was the one left to find him, to call 911 and to clean up the bedroom where he shot himself. He left no note. Like many with depression, he had become inwardly focused, unable to consider the consequences of his actions on others."

Sullenberger explained that he felt both shocked, angry and was in disbelief. "I had young children. How could he remove himself from watching them grow up?" he wrote. He went on to say that there are statistics that people should think about. "According to the CDC, suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in the US. There are now more suicides than homicides." He added, "Because depression is something that people deal with individually in their darkest moments, and because there is still unfortunately a stigma attached, we often don’t realize the depth and the devastating reach of this disease until it’s too late." 

Capt Chesley 'Sully' Sullenberger attends a book signing of his book 'Highest Duty' at Barnes and Noble October 13, 2009, in New York City. Sullengerger was the pilot of the US Airways plane that crashed into the Hudson River January 15 with all passengers emerging alive (Mario Tama/Getty Images)

'We never know which moment we will be judged on'

The blog article mentions National Suicide Prevention Week, which is from September 8 to 14, and includes a link to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline and other resources. "By sharing my family’s story, I hope that others can be spared the pain that suicide inflicts on victims and those they leave behind. My message is that there is help available and that it is time to bring the discussion about this crisis facing so many families into the open," Sullenberger wrote. He called out to those who need help, or know someone who does, to reach out today. "You can help save a life," he added.

Sullenberger is now a speaker, consultant and author. He writes, in his memoir, "One of the reasons I think I've placed such a high value on life is that my father took his. I'm willing to work very hard to protect people's lives, to be a good Samaritan, and to not be a bystander, in part because I couldn't save my father." Sullenberger's memoir has a recurring theme: it's not what he did in those five minutes in the cockpit that matters, but how he spent the 57 years building up to them. "We need to try to do the right thing every time, to perform at our best, because we never know which moment in our lives we'll be judged on," he writes.

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