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'Sully' to headline Centennial Airport's 50th

'Miracle on the Hudson' pilot will speak at benefit for local aviation, aerospace programs


He's a renowned pilot and graduate of the U.S. Air Force Academy. He's been an “aviation and safety expert” for CBS News. He's one of the 2009 TIME 100 most influential people in the world.

And he's speaking at the 50th anniversary celebration at Centennial Airport. Originally the Arapahoe County Airport, it's a place Capt. Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger became acquainted with nearly five decades ago.

“When I entered the U.S. Air Force Academy, I already held a commercial-pilot certificate that I had earned while still in high school,” said Sullenberger, a Texas native. “During the Thanksgiving weekend of my freshman year, I traveled to the Arapahoe County Airport to fly a Cessna 172 to get some flight time and maintain my piloting skills. I flew an hour-long flight that day. Over my four years at the academy, I had occasion to fly into (the airport) a few times.”

It was early in his decades-long career in flight, but Colorado left an impression on the now-influential author and speaker.

“Colorado has always been a special place for me,” said Sullenberger, who flew into Centennial Airport for the first time since the early 1970s last August for a speech in Keystone.

Now, he's coming back again for the airport's anniversary luncheon May 25 at the Denver Marriott Tech Center to share his credo of “leadership by personal example.” He'll talk about the life lessons that prepared him to handle the historic moment when he saved 155 lives on a flight that landed in the Hudson River.

On Jan. 15, 2009, Sullenberger lost thrust in both engines on US Airways Flight 1549 and led his crew to safely execute an emergency water landing on the river in New York. Sullenberger and the crew garnered widespread acclaim for their actions, including the passage of a congressional resolution in their honor. The crisis came to be known as the “miracle on the Hudson” and inspired the 2016 motion picture “Sully,” in which Tom Hanks portrayed Sullenberger.

For Sullenberger, coming back to Centennial Airport to talk about leadership seemed natural.

“Leadership is something that I have thought about and worked on my whole life, so it is an obvious good fit,” said Sullenberger, who served as a fighter pilot for the Air Force from 1975-80.

In a changing commercial-aviation industry landscape — Boeing in 2017 estimated an industry need for about 1.2 million pilots and technicians over the next 20 years worldwide — Sullenberger's speech comes at a time when the future of the craft depends heavily on young hopefuls for pilot and technician positions.

“Aviation has become much safer, more routine and more efficient, but fewer young men and women are choosing that path,” Sullenberger said. “I am encouraging people to rediscover aviation as a way of having real adventures in real life and not just virtual ones.”

The Centennial Airport Foundation supports local STEM education and programs, particularly with an emphasis on aviation and aerospace. Since its founding in 2005, the 501(c)3 organization has provided more than $140,000 in grant and scholarship funds to local schools, colleges, universities and industry-related charities — and all proceeds from ticket sales to the May 25 luncheon will go toward funding future scholarships.

“One of the ways we give back is through the Centennial Airport Foundation,” said Deborah Grigsby Smith, spokeswoman for the airport. The foundation, in collaboration with schools, STEM programs and some charities, “provides both financial and in-kind resources to increase public awareness of the general-aviation industry and the many contributions it makes to the state of Colorado.”

As a general-aviation airport with no scheduled commercial-airline traffic, the projected personnel shortage doesn't affect Centennial Airport directly, but the airport is a “component in helping fill that gap,” Grigsby Smith said.

“We're home to five very active flight schools that have a very longstanding relationship with Metropolitan State University's department of aviation and aerospace science,” Grigsby Smith said. “Many students going through the professional pilot program there come to Centennial (Airport) to complete their flight training.”

The airport's executive director, Robert Olislagers, reflected on Centennial Airport's growth as an influential part of the south Denver metro area.

“From humble beginnings in 1968, Centennial Airport has grown to become one of the most respected, premier business airports in the nation,” Olislagers said. “More importantly, the airport has proven itself as an integral part of the economic success of the Denver south metro area, and being able to celebrate 50 years of aviation excellence with Captain Sullenberger, who exemplifies excellence in aviation, is a fitting tribute to not only the airport, but to all who have made our success possible.”


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