Weeks after starring in his own story of bravery and heroism, the pilot who safely ditched his jetliner in the Hudson River received a standing ovation Saturday from the audience at a Broadway performance of "South Pacific."
At the end of the classic revival, the show's stars introduced Capt. Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger as the pilot who set down the disabled plane within reach of rescue boats last month, saving the lives of all 155 people on US Airways Flight 1549.
"It could have been tragic, but it wasn't. It became a miracle," said Kelli O'Hara, who plays the show's lead female character, Nellie Forbush. "We've never been more honored than to perform for you, Captain."
As she spoke, a spotlight was trained on Sullenberger in the audience, and the crowd stood, cheered and applauded. The pilot's wife, Lorrie Sullenberger, began wiping tears from her face.
He hugged her, then turned back to the crowd and waved as the cheers grew still louder.
'Hero who's a real hero'
Many in the audience already had recognized him. Murmurs of "look who's here" had buzzed through the crowd during intermission.
"It was quite exciting just to see this guy who saved so many lives," said David Feldman, who found himself sitting two rows behind the pilot.
"It's so nice to have a hero who's a real hero, instead of movie stars," added Feldman's wife, Ellen Schwartz.
The 58-year-old pilot, his wife and their two daughters went backstage after the show and met the cast of the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical, which tells of the romances and heroics of a group of American aviators, nurses and sailors stationed far from home during World War II.
It was an appropriate choice for Sullenberger, who was named best aviator in his Air Force Academy class and served in the military from 1973 to 1980. He flew F-4 Phantom II fighter planes and served as a flight leader in Europe and the Pacific.
The calm and steadiness with which he handled the Jan. 15 near-disaster — witnesses said he walked the length of the waterlogged plane to make sure everyone got out — could have fit right in with the feats depicted on the Lincoln Center Theater stage. A propeller plane even forms part of the show's set.
Sullenberger and his fellow crew members are in New York as part of a media blitz, including an interview with the pilot that is set to air Sunday on CBS' "60 Minutes." He also is expected to appear Monday on ABC's "Good Morning America" and CBS's "The Early Show" and to receive a key to the city from Mayor Michael Bloomberg later in the day.