The Pilot's Wife
On January 15, 2009, a passenger plane struck a flock of geese after taking off from LaGuardia Airport in New York. With both engines disabled, pilot Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger pulled off an emergency landing on the Hudson River, saving all 150 passengers. Captain Sullenberger became a hero and his life changed forever. So did his wife's. Lorrie Sullenberger was a fitness coach and mother of two in the San Francisco Bay area. As a regular guest on a local TV talk show, The View from the Bay, standing in front of a camera wasn't new. But nothing could have prepared her for the impact of her husband's celebrity on her marriage, family, and sense of self. Three years after the "Miracle on the Hudson," Lorrie spoke with Ladies' Home Journal about the rewards and pitfalls of her husband's fame.
At the moment my husband landed his plane in the river, I was at the mall, trying on a blouse. I didn't learn what had happened until a half hour later. It was a Thursday afternoon, around 1:00 Pacific time; I was back home, on the phone with a coworker, when Sully called on the other line. "I just wanted to let you know I'm okay," he said. "There's been an incident. Have you been watching television?"
I grabbed the remote and saw the images of an airplane in the water. Passengers were standing on the wings of the plane with the river lapping at their feet. Then everything seemed to go into slow motion. Sully told me he was on a ferry and had to hang up. For a while I sat shaking on the edge of our bed, trying to make sense of what I'd seen and heard. Then I went to pull my teenage daughters, Kate and Kelly, out of school. After we returned, Kate came downstairs with her cell phone. "Mom," she said, "it's the New York Times." I don't know how they got her number, but that's when things started to get crazy.
Soon the house phone was ringing nonstop with interview requests from around the world. Two of my girlfriends came over and found our cul-de-sac filling up with satellite trucks. I asked my friends to say I wasn't available -- I didn't want to talk to the media until I'd spoken with Sully. When he finally called again, late that night, he said, "I think this is going to change our lives forever." At the time we thought, maybe he'd be on the cover of Air & Space magazine or something. We had no idea what that really meant.
I made a brief statement the next morning to the press in our yard, and the girls carpooled to school. The reporters stayed. They were still there on Saturday evening, when Kate celebrated her 16th birthday with 25 kids dancing in the living room.
Everyone felt jubilation over what had happened, but for our family it was a traumatic experience. Meanwhile, Sully had been flown from New York to San Francisco and then smuggled from the San Francisco airport to the house of a pilot friend; I drove out to sneak him back to our place. The few times we'd spoken on the phone, he kept saying, "I'm fine, I'm fine." But when I saw him he didn't look fine. He had dark circles under his eyes and was thin and stressed. His first words to me were, "I hope everybody knows I did the best I could." He'd spent the past 48 hours preparing to be interviewed by the National Transportation Safety Board investigators. He was in shock. I said, "Have you watched the news?" He said, "No." I said, "Honey, let's go home and watch the news." Everyone felt jubilation over what had happened, but for our family, and I'm sure for everyone on flight 1549, it was a traumatic experience.
That weekend things felt dreamlike. We got an invitation to the presidential inauguration and the following Monday flew with the girls to Washington. Backstage at the White House Neighborhood Ball, President Obama shook my hand and whispered, "You're not letting this go to Sully's head, are you?" Without thinking, I answered, "Well, America may think he's a hero, but he still snores at night." The president laughed, then told his wife what I'd said. "Just like you!" Michelle shot back. I remember thinking, I'm meeting the First Lady and we're talking about our husbands' snoring. I can't believe this.
Back home, letters and e-mails were flooding in by the thousands. One woman wrote, "In the last year I lost my job and my home. My father and my best friend died of cancer. I had lost my faith. You, sir, gave it back." Those messages moved and inspired us, but there were too many to answer each one personally. We couldn't even figure out where to put them. Every counter was covered with cards and gifts.
I accompanied Sully to 45 public events that first year. We went to Buckingham Palace, where Sully received a medal from Prince Philip. We went to the Oscars; movie stars kept telling Sully where they'd been when his plane touched down.
Our daughters often came with us to these events, though not always willingly. They missed a lot of school and their grades took a hit. When we were invited to Buckingham Palace, Kelly said, "That's the same day as my eighth-grade promotion ceremony!" To a 14-year-old, a royal reception in London seemed far less important. The family can't be all about one person all the time. Or one event. We needed balance back in our lives.
For Sully, who's reserved and humble, being in the limelight was difficult, but he felt a tremendous obligation to speak up for his profession and to respond to this outpouring of support. As his wife, I felt a responsibility, too. I felt a need to protect him. But as the flight attendants say, you've got to put on your own oxygen mask before you can help someone else. And the truth is, I was beginning to feel suffocated.
When we went to a restaurant we rarely dined in peace. One woman came up to Sully and said, "Oh, good, you're not eating." I said, "I am," but she waved me off and launched into her spiel. People often would start talking to me, until I realized what they really wanted was to talk to Sully and were using me to get to him. I even lost my guest spot on The View from the Bay; there was concern that viewers who were new to the show might think I was on because of my husband. That turned out to be a blessing, allowing me to focus on the girls. But at the time it hurt.
Still, life went on, and like any married couple we'd have our occasional spat. One day, after we'd fought over something so silly I can't remember what it was, I was in a store looking at purses when a customer gave the usual shout: "You're Mrs. Sullenberger! You're so lucky to be married to that man!" She was right, Sully and I had been happily married for 22 years, but that wasn't how I was feeling at the moment. "Well," I said, "I'm a little irritated with him this morning." She said, "He's a hero. You should forgive him!" I wanted to say, "But you haven't heard my side!"
Finally, about a year after the Hudson landing, I reached my breaking point. My hair started falling out. I had a bad run of migraine headaches -- day after day after day. Both girls started getting them, too. My doctor said we had been under so much stress for so long that our bodies took it as a threat; it triggered our fight-or-flight response.
Fame has its privileges, but it also brings upheaval. It's no wonder that so many celebrities get divorced. Sully and I were better equipped than many to handle the bumps. He was a pilot, measured and controlled. At 50 I'd grappled with enough challenges -- failed fertility treatments, adopting our daughters -- not to be easily knocked off balance. I was in good physical shape, having discovered the power of outdoor exercise after years as a chubby woman who felt uncomfortable in her own skin. I had causes I cared about -- animal rescue, service dogs -- that I could use my heightened profile to promote. Sully had always been my closest friend and our marriage was strong.
Nonetheless, the family can't be all about one person all the time. Or one event. We needed balance back in our lives. So we made some course corrections. First, we decided the girls had to have as normal a life as possible. They'd hobnobbed with royalty, now it was time to let them just be teenagers and for Sully to gently say no when fans asked him to pose for photos. Second, I needed to set my own priorities. Sully and I made a deal: If I went to an event, I'd give it my all. But if I didn't feel I could do that, I didn't have to go. That took a huge weight off my shoulders.
But we still value chance encounters when a stranger opens her heart. We were getting the car repaired recently when a woman said to me, "He's the pilot, isn't he?" Then she burst into tears. "My 16-year-old son was injured in a fireworks explosion. It blew off three of his fingers and destroyed his left eye and eardrum. Now he won't leave his room. I was sitting here feeling like I'd lost all hope. But when I saw you two, I realized that there's always hope."
By then I was crying, too. I introduced her to Sully and snapped their picture. And it struck me that I didn't feel lost anymore. A few months earlier I'd been questioning my new role in life. Now I think that maybe my calling is to be the keeper of these stories that people keep telling us. If that's going to be my job, then aren't I lucky?
Originally published in Ladies' Home Journal, February 2012.