Capt. Chesley B. Sullenberger III has had quite a eventful life since heroically saving 155 people by bringing US Airways Flight 1549 to a crash landing after a flock of geese jammed the plane’s engines five years ago today.
Sullenberger, 62, has become a best-selling author, been congratulated by Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, become an advocate for air safety and joined the The Journal of Patient Safety "to bring a sense of urgency," to the need to reduce the estimated 200,000 deaths each year that result from medical errors. "That’s the equivalent of three airliners crashing per day," he told amNewYork on Monday.
The "hero of the Hudson" has acknowledged that after what he described in a 2009 Newsweek column as "the most harrowing three minutes of my life," he suffered invasive thoughts and insomnia, but he returned to flying before retiring from US Airways in 2010.
Having dealt first-hand with an airplane crippled by a flock of birds, Sullenberger is disappointed that New Yor City is constructing a waste transfer station about 2,000 feet away from "one of the busiest runways in the nation" at LaGuardia Airport despite protests from safety experts. The plan was backed by both Mayor Bill de Blasio and Mayor Michael Bloomberg.
The city has argued that it plans to contain the garbage so as not to attract birds, but they aren’t the only problem, Sullenberger said. The location and structure of the station, he said, will not allow pilots to use precision instrument guidance that is helpful in low-visibility conditions. "The upshot is that not only is this not a good idea, but the runway (will be) less operationally useful," Sullenberger explained.
"Sullenberger, who lives in Danville, Calif., is in town this week promote a new $5,400 watch, the "208 seconds Aeroscope," manufactured by Jeanrichard. (That’s how long it took Sullenberger to splash land the Airbus 320-214.) A portion of sales from the timepiece will be donated to the American Red Cross and the Rory Staunton Foundation.
The retired pilot isn’t shy about his affinity for the the Big Apple.
Part of my heart will always be in New York because of the wonderful outcome and wonderful welcome I received," he said.
Sullenberger doesn’t have a favorite airline, and is a member of "all" the frequent flier clubs: "My family and I buy tickets just like everyone else!" in part because flights now are so full that retired airline workers aren’t always able to use flight benefits provided by former employers, he explained.
Whereas announcements were once made on the planes when the flight crews discovered the world’s most famous living pilot was on board, now "they keep it quiet and respectful," said Sullenberger. True, the pilots often emerge from the cockpit when he disembarks to pump his hand.
The number of commercial pilots who have managed to land after losing power is a "small fraternity," acknowledged Sullenberger. Capt. Al Haynes, the pilot who crash landed a DC-10 in Sioux City in 1989, reached out to console Sullenberger after his traumatic landing, and Sullenberger reached out in turn to Qantas pilot Richard de Crispigny after he made an emergency landing of an Airbus 380 at the Singapore Changi Airport in 2010.
Birds aren’t the only threats to passenger and crew safety, noted the pilot: Employers are, too. "The antagonism towards employees and labor has already had a cost in terms of creating a flawed culture at the airlines," said Sullenberger, adding that the authority of flight captains "to make the correct decision without fear of sanction has been put under threat." As examples, he cited excessive questioning of pilots who seek to delay takeoffs for additional safety checks or who request additional fuel. Pilots, he said, "are being second-guessed by management more and more."
And that, said Sullenberger, does not auger well airline safety.