A Danville airline pilot made famous by his lifesaving emergency water landing on the Hudson River in 2009 was in San Francisco today to talk about his life as a sudden American hero and what it means to be a leader in the modern world.

Capt. Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger was an unknown 57-year-old pilot who had served as a fighter pilot in the U.S. Air Force when US Airways Flight 1549 struck a gaggle of geese flying in the plane’s airspace near LaGuardia International Airport on Jan. 15, 2009.

He managed to avert disaster by safely ditching the aircraft on the nearby Hudson River, a rare occurrence and something he says pilots are minimally trained to do.

All 155 onboard survived the landing.

More than three years later Sullenberger has retired and become an aviation and safety consultant for CBS News and has written two books, the latest of which is “Making a Difference: Stories of Vision and Courage from America’s Leaders.”

In a conversation at the Commonwealth Club offices on Market Street in San Francisco’s Financial District this afternoon, Sullenberger discussed his newly acquired fame, consulting work and research for writing a book about leadership with interviewer Dan Ashley, a news anchor at San Francisco’s ABC7 television station.

The retired pilot described the year after his moment of bravery as “having a huge fire hose pointed at me and my family for an entire year” and that the attention was overwhelming.

With the public’s sudden interest in everything about Sullenberger he was able to put his 45 years of flight experience to use and starting consulting for airline safety.

He noted how remarkable flying on commercial airlines “feels like sitting in your living room” while jetting through the atmosphere in a small tube.

In the past few decades, flight safety has only improved with the chance of dying in flight 1 in 20 million. However, Sullenberger warned, complacency comes with improved flight technology which makes the risks not as apparent or immediate.

“We are a victim of our own success,” he said.

During a discussion of modern flight dangers, especially concerning birds that fly into jet engines much like his own experience, Sullenberger connected safety to leadership.

He said we need to push for more responsible laws and regulations and cannot only worry about the cost of a flight.

“We can no longer afford the luxury of living on past investments,” he said.

The former pilot, who has been able to meet famous leaders from President Barack Obama to former New York City Police Commissioner William Bratton since he rose to fame, has seen what it takes to succeed as a leader.

He described two types of leaders, accidental and born, and emphasized anyone can take on a leadership role; they just need to ditch the ego and be optimistic about any situation.

As to today’s leaders, especially politicians, he said, “I wish we had more leaders that would make their actions match their rhetoric.”

One question from the audience had Sullenberger grinning when asked if he had ever flown a F-22 Raptor, the newest fighter jet. He said he hadn’t but he would have loved to as a younger pilot.

He also said he doesn’t plan on running for public office, despite nationwide pressure.

“I’m more effective outside government rather than in,” he told the audience before heading to the lobby to sign copies of his book, which was released earlier this week.

Sasha Lekach, Bay City News

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