Saturday, January 17, 2009

A Pilot Becomes a Hero Years in the Making

Note: While this is not a TV/Film/Theatre/Print Media labor story, Captain Sullenberger is a long time dues paying member in good standing and Safety Representative with the Air Line Pilot's Association. - BD

The New York Times

Capt. Chesley B. Sullenberger III had just performed a remarkable feat of flying. Some were calling it a miracle. But there he stood, calmly, inside the glass waiting room at the New York Waterway terminal on Pier 79, speaking to police officials. His fine gray hair was unruffled, and his navy blue pilot’s uniform had barely a wrinkle.

“His tie wasn’t even loosened,” said Edward Skyler, a deputy mayor of New York City, who stood nearby.

Michael A. L. Balboni, the state’s deputy secretary for public safety, worked his way through the room to introduce himself. He shook the pilot’s hand, looked him in the eye and thanked him for a job done brilliantly: the precise, soft, lifesaving landing of a 50-ton jetliner in the Hudson River.

“He said to me, in the most unaffected, humble way, he says, ‘That’s what we’re trained to do,’ ” Mr. Balboni said. “No boasting, no emotion, no nothing.”

While the world clamored Friday for his story, and government leaders applauded his professionalism, and fan pages sprang up on the Internet, Captain Sullenberger retained his focus, avoiding the limelight as he awaited an interview Saturday with federal investigators studying what went wrong with US Airways Flight 1549.

Heroes are often born in an instant, the split second it takes to recognize a pending disaster and react, the blink of an eye it takes a Wesley Autrey to throw himself under a subway train to save a man fallen on the tracks.

In Captain Sullenberger’s case, it was years in the making.

Captain Sullenberger, 57, the US Airways pilot who safely brought the wounded Airbus A320 passenger plane to rest on the Hudson on Thursday, had been with the airline for nearly 30 years and was steeped in the safety side of the industry.

He had worked with federal aviation officials investigating crashes and improving training and methods for evacuating aircraft in emergencies. He got his pilot’s license as a teenager, flew F-4 Phantoms for the Air Force and was a 1973 graduate of the Air Force Academy, where he received the Outstanding Cadet in Airmanship Award, given to the top flier in each graduating class.

He even flew gliders, which is sort of what he was left with Thursday when something, perhaps birds, knocked out both engines in his plane.

Many people, from the first officer to members of the flight crew, from the passengers to the civilian and city rescue crews who converged on the craft to save them, earned accolades on Thursday. But Captain Sullenberger’s efforts, like twice checking the soaked cabin for stragglers before fleeing the sinking plane himself, emerged as singularly selfless leadership of a sort that seemed so removed from things like Ponzi schemes and subprime mortgages, corporate bailouts and deflected blame.

“If it wasn’t for him, I wouldn’t be here today,” said Mary Berkwits, a passenger from Stallings, N.C. “He was just wonderful.”

Another passenger, Nick Gamache, a software salesman from Raleigh, N.C., said he was the “picture of calm.”

“I mean, he was directing people to get on the raft,” Mr. Gamache said. “Then I saw him in the terminal. That’s where I was like, ‘Thank you, you just saved all our lives.’ ”

Howard J. Rubenstein, the public relations guru, called Captain Sullenberger a “publicist’s dream,” and envisioned lucrative book deals, movie pitches and product endorsements in his future.

“He’s got 150 people out there and their families out promoting him,” he said.

He is also a boon for an airline that has filed for bankruptcy twice in recent years and has been plagued by publicity nightmares. Two Christmases ago, US Airways lost 75,000 bags, some not found for months. Last year it became the first airline to charge for coffee, tea and bottled water.

Perhaps only in a coincidence, the airline’s share price shot up 13 percent Friday.

Captain Sullenberger fielded congratulatory phone calls from President Bush and President-elect Barack Obama on Friday, but mostly stayed secluded somewhere in the city. He did not attend a ceremony at City Hall, where Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg said his actions “inspired people around the city, and millions more around the world.”

The airline would not discuss his whereabouts or how he spent the day.

Friends, relatives and colleagues described Captain Sullenberger as even-tempered and unassuming. “He wouldn’t take easily to being called a hero,” said Jim Walberg, a family friend.

At Pier 79 on Thursday, while others huddled in thermal blankets, he stood without one while talking to detectives and aviation officials. One official there said Captain Sullenberger mentioned to an officer that one of his priorities was to call his wife and cancel a dinner reservation.

On Friday in Danville, Calif., 40 miles east of San Francisco, the quiet cul-de-sac where the Sullenbergers reside was abuzz with television and newspaper journalists. Lorrie Sullenberger, the wife, along with two daughters, a cat and a yellow Labrador retriever named Twinkle, has mostly been in seclusion since the accident, still shaken by the close call, said many neighbors, and looking forward to the pilot’s return.

Ms. Sullenberger stopped briefly to talk to reporters on her lawn as she ushered her daughters off to school Friday morning.

“My husband has said over years that it is highly unlikely for any pilot to have an incident in his career, let alone something like this,” Ms. Sullenberger said. “So I was stunned when he called and said there’s been an incident, and even then I thought maybe it was a tug that maybe had bumped the airplane. Your mind never goes to something like this.”

Jake Brown, a neighbor, said Captain Sullenberger’s feat was no surprise to those who knew him.

“He is someone who walks into a room and you know he is in charge,” said Mr. Brown.
Captain Sullenberger grew up in Denison, Tex., a town of about 23,000 on the Oklahoma border where his street was named for his mother’s family, the Hannas.

His father was a dentist. His mother taught grade school. Both are deceased.
His only sibling, Mary Wilson, said that even as a boy, Captain Sullenberger showed a meticulous attention for detail. He would build model aircraft carriers with tiny planes, careful to paint every last component.

“He’s very friendly,” she said, “but when it comes to being a pilot, that comes second.”
Ms. Wilson said her brother might have become interested in flying from listening to stories of his father’s Navy service. His high school friends say his passion came from watching jets from the now-defunct Perrin Air Force Base roar through the big skies over his home. In his teens, when most of his peers were learning to drive cars, he already had his pilot’s license.
Captain Sullenberger graduated near the top of his class of about 350 people and was the first-chair flautist in the marching band and involved in the Latin Club.

At the academy, he was selected along with about a dozen other freshmen to be involved in a cadet glider program, and by the end of the year was an instructor pilot.

“It was a tremendous asset to get exposed to that kind of flying early on,” said John Eisenhart, a fellow cadet in the program who now flies 767s for United Airlines. “And there’s no doubt in my mind that that came into play yesterday. When you’re in a glider you’ve got one shot at it. You’ve got to plan your energy, and of course your altitude is your energy, and that gives you one shot at the approach.”

Eric Vogel, who was in Captain Sullenberger’s squadron all four years at the academy and roomed with him during their freshman summer, said that even in the boot camp-like atmosphere that first summer, Captain Sullenberger was “unflappable.”

“You have all this pressure of a new lifestyle, and you have people yelling at you and things like that, and he would just take it and move on,” said Mr. Vogel, a pilot with Southwest Airlines.

Captain Sullenberger went on to earn two master’s degrees and become a safety expert who served on panels for the National Transportation Safety Board, among others. In one instance, he was among a group that studied emergency evacuation practices after a crash in Los Angeles, again a bit of experience likely to have come in handy on Thursday.

John Cox, a safety consultant and a former safety representative with Captain Sullenberger for the Air Line Pilots Association, said his friend personified what you wanted in a professional pilot.

“He’s naturally talented as an aviator, and he’s had very good training,” Mr. Cox said, “and it all came together on that landing in the Hudson.”

No comments: