Over seven years have passed since Chesley Sullenberger was hailed a hero around the world after the US Airways jet he was piloting slammed into a flock of Canada geese, knocking out both his engines, and he responded by calmly executing a flawless, unprecedented emergency landing on the Hudson River, saving all 155 passengers and crew.
Seated on a sofa in the northern California home he shares with his wife Lorrie, Sullenberger – whose story is told in the upcoming movie Sully, directed by Clint Eastwood, starring Tom Hanks – tells PEOPLE that life after his aptly named “miracle on the Hudson” landing wasn’t always easy.
“I’ve never sought the limelight,” says Sullenberger, 65, in this week’s issue of PEOPLE. “And the sudden notoriety in the aftermath was a huge challenge for my family and I. There was no way to learn what you needed to learn quickly enough in order to be on the world stage.”
Equally tough to handle was the physical toll that the event took on his body. His heart rate and blood pressure were alarmingly high for days and weeks afterward. Even worse, Sullenberger couldn’t stay asleep for more than 45 minutes at a stretch during that period.
VIDEO: Tom Hanks Reveals What Drew Him to Sully at NYC Premiere
“My body’s physiological response to the trauma was intense,” says Sullenberger, who retired from his 30-year-career as a commercial pilot, much of it as a captain, in 2010. “That was true for all of us [co-pilot Jeffrey Skiles and crew]. It took time to process.”
For more on Chesley Sullenberger, pick up the new issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands Friday
But perhaps the toughest part of suddenly becoming one of the world’s most famous pilots, after Charles Lindbergh and the Wright Brothers, was making peace with the hero label – or as he calls it the ‘H word’ – thrust upon him after being plucked from the Hudson on January 15, 2009.
“I resisted the H word initially,” says Sullenberger, who remains in regular contact with the tight-knit group of grateful passengers whose lives he saved on US Airways Flight 1549. “But I certainly have grown to understand people’s need to feel the way they feel about this event and, by extension, about me.”