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Pilot was a 'hero,' but are more coming along for airlines to hire?

There are fewer military pilots to draw from, plus economic difficulties in the industry.

By Staff writer / January 16, 2009

Capt. Chelsey B. Sullenberger III piloted US Airways Flight 1549 to a safe landing in the Hudson River after the aircraft engines lost power due to suspected bird strikes. He’s a former US Air Force fighter pilot, founder of a company that advises firms on safety and reliability issues, and visiting scholar at the University of California, Berkeley.

Safety Reliability Methods, Inc./AP


New York – There's no question that landing a plane with no power on a river in the middle of a city safely is an extraordinary feat.

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Captain Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger III, whose smoothly water landing in the Hudson River helped ensure all 155 people aboard US Airways Flight 1549 could walk to safety rightly deserves his status as an instant hero.

But aviation safety experts are adamant that what happened Thursday afternoon was not simply a "miracle" but a product of years of disciplined training, invaluable experience, cutting edge engineering and an aviation culture that rigorously and regularly reviews and updates safety related procedures and engineering.

That's helped flying to become one of the safest modes of transportation in the United States. For the last two consecutive years there have been no fatalities in commercial aviation despite some potentially lethal incidents, like Thursday's water landing.

"How do you make a miracle? There are two things and the first isn't that glamorous: It's the systems analysts who've helped us get much better at understanding what causes accidents and do what needs to be done β€” in designing aircraft and training people β€” to prevent them," says William Voss, president and CEO of the Flight Safety Foundation, an international nonprofit organization dedicated to improving aviation safety. "And then there's glamorous bit we saw yesterday: That kind of extraordinary sense of confidence, training, and skill that makes this system so safe. We still haven't given that away."

Captain Sullenberger is a veteran of that aviation culture in which safety has been a major preoccupation. But there's also growing concern within some aviation circles that the airlines recent economic turmoil will make flying a less attractive career to people like Sullenberger.

He began his career as an Air Force fighter pilot, and became a captain when flying for American carriers was still a high-status, high income job. The crack training he received enabled him to become an expert and start an aviation consulting business called Safety Reliability Methods, Inc. as well as to work with both the National Transportation Safety Board and the United States Air Force in working on accident investigations. He is currently a visiting scholar at the University of California's Berkeley's Center for Catastrophic Risk Management.

All of that experience and training served him well in the moment of crisis.