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'Miracle on the Hudson': Hudson River Hero Capt. 'Sully' Sullenberg

Pilot lands Flight 1549 safely in the river

Capt. Chesley B. Sullenberger III has 36,912 new fans.

Hours after the veteran pilot glided US Airways Flight 1549 safely into the frigid waters of the Hudson River and ensured all 150 passengers and five crew members were off the plane, a Facebook fan site dedicated to him exploded with written kudos from all over the world.

“This is a true American hero that all children can look up to and revere,” writes a resident of Corpus Christi, Texas.

“Congratulations to you on saving so many lives. Your skills and expertise are truly incredible. Let me say from the other side of the world you are a true hero and a credit to your profession and America,” writes a South African.

Maria from Chile chimes in: “Experience and nerves of steel made the difference between life and death. You are the type of pilot I would want in the cockpit during an emergency.”

“Great work Captain Sully. I wish all pilots were as experienced as you!” says another fan.

Indeed, years on the job was likely a reason Sullenberger, also known as “Sully,” didn’t panic when the engines of his Airbus A320 blew because of a “bird strike.”

“Experience is one of the number of factors that is crucial in this situation,” says Jim Hall, former chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board. According to his biography, the 57-year-old resident of Danville, Calif., claims 19,000 hours in the air, including nearly 30 years of flying passenger jets.

But it’s not just the number of hours in the air. “[Sullenberger] was also actively trying to improve his skills” Hall says. “He was involved in many safety programs that clearly served him well.”

Sullenberger didn’t limit himself to the cockpit. A flight instructor as well as a pilot, Sullenberger has been recognized as one of the best. After US Airways pilots took a safety course that he developed, the airline’s accident record went down to zero after five previous major accidents, according to information on Sullenberger’s website. He also served as an Air Line Pilots Association safety chairman and assisted with accident investigations for the National Transportation Safety Board.

Sullenberger also owns his own safety consulting firm, Safety Reliability Methods Inc., which applies advances developed in the “ultra safe world of commercial aviation” to other fields. All of this led to his appointment as a visiting scholar at the University of California, Berkeley Center for Catastrophic Risk Management.

Robert Bea, the cofounder of the center, told the Associated Press that he could think of few pilots as well situated to bring the plane down safely. One reason: Sullenberger had been studying the psychology of keeping airline crews functioning even in the face of crisis.

Sullenberger’s lifelong devotion to flying undoubtedly played a role in his smooth landing. From the time he was a child Sullenberger knew that he wanted to fly airplanes. Perrin Air Force Base, an active pilot-training facility, was located in his hometown of Denison, Texas, about 90 miles north of Dallas. Jets roared over the town regularly.

“We were enamored with flying,” says Jim Russell, 57, a childhood friend of Sullenberger’s who still lives in Denison. “Flying was exciting in the ’50s and ’60s.” From the time he watched those jets roaring overhead, Sullenberger dedicated his life to becoming a pilot, says Russell.

He had his pilot’s license by 14—before he got his driver’s license—and graduated from the Air Force Academy in 1973 with the Outstanding Cadet in Airmanship award. “A typical graduating class is 1,000, so getting that award is no small achievement,” says Lt. Col. Brett Ashworth, a spokesman for the academy.

After graduation, Sullenberger’s career soared—literally. In the 1970s he flew F-4 fighter jets with the Air Force, working in Europe, the Pacific and at Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada. While learning to fly fighter jets, he instructed other pilots in his squadron. Then, in 1980, he began flying commercial aircrafts for US Airways—and hasn’t stopped since.

His penchant for safety is one of the reasons Russell isn’t surprised that Sullenberger was able to land his plane safely near the ferries that helped with the evacuation instead of, say, on a cluster of buildings in Manhattan. “He’s very methodical and businesslike when flying,” Russell says. “In high school, we’d go up in a little Cessna. He wasn’t up there to show off. He was all business. He was very careful and safety-conscious.”

After the evacuations, Sullenberger walked the length of the plane twice to make sure everyone was off before he left. Sullenberger’s high school friend, Doug Hoover, 58, wasn’t shocked. “He would have gone down with the plane, if the situation called for it. He was just that kind of guy,” Hoover says. “I’m not surprised he kept his cool.”

Sullenberger cannot grant interviews because the accident is still under investigation, says Hoover. “That’s why we’re speaking on his behalf. He’d probably say that any good pilot would have done what he did. But he deserves all the praise that he gets. He’s exceptional.”

By tomorrow, Sullenberger just may have a few more fans. In the past 10 minutes, he’s already accumulated 1,063 more on Facebook.

(Photo: Safety Reliability Methods, Inc./AP Photo)

Carol Kaufmann is a contributing editor at AARP Bulletin. 

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