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.

Safety Reliability Methods, Inc./AP
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.

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.

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.

"He did a fantastic job and made all the right choices. He's a really instinctive, well-trained pilot," says Richard Golaszewski, executive vice president of GRA Inc., aviation consultants in Jenkintown, Pa. "But there were a lot of things that happened long before that: Design rules that say how long a plane has to float, training of the flight attendants and pilots. Ditching is something they train for."

Mixed with all of the accolades for Capt. Sullenberger, there's also some concern that the past 8 years of economic turmoil at the airlines during which pilot pay and benefits have been slashed will make it more difficult to attract people of Sullenberger's abilities.

"We still have some exceptionally trained and qualified crews," says a veteran pilot for a major airline who's not authorized to speak with the press. "But the fear is that in the future, because of the loss of quality of life and pay and turmoil that you're not going to attract people of that same caliber. For now at least we're enjoying the experience of people who chose it as a profession when it was still a highly coveted job."

Analysts note there has also been long-term trend of fewer military-trained pilots entering the commercial aviation world. Some contend that's because the job is now less attractive and they worry that this has led to a diminution in the skill and type of training pilots get. But others strongly disagree and say it's just a question of numbers. After the Vietnam War there were simply fewer military pilots being trained, and so fewer people like Capt. Sullenberger were joining the major airlines.

"There's absolutely no evidence I know of to suggest that the people coming from the civilian ranks aren't as qualified as military pilots," says Clint Oster, an aviation economist at Indiana University in Bloomington.

Prof. Oster and other analysts believe aviation still attracts people of high caliber, despite the changes in the job's pay. But there's also some concern about the future.

"There's no question that people feel less attracted to the aviation business because it's not the romantic, highly paid profession that it once was," says Mr. Voss. "But there's still a strong emotional attachment to it and we still see a lot of very positive young people wanting to go into it."

But Voss worries that when the economy recovers and the airlines again become profitable the nation will be facing a shortage of qualified pilots like Capt. Sullenberger.

"When we come out of this economic slow period there's going to be a sudden demand for pilots, and we'll be tested on our ability to put really talented people in these airplanes in sufficient numbers," he says.

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