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In an emergency, this pilot is an expert

NEW YORK — Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger has made a career of making people safer.

Sullenberger, a pilot, accident investigator and scholar who founded a company focused on helping businesses improve safety, navigated his own emergency Thursday, bringing his twin-engine US Airways plane down on the Hudson River.

As his passengers climbed onto ferry boats, he walked the length of the plane, twice, making sure that no one was left behind, Mayor Michael Bloomberg said.

Sullenberger, 57, became an instant hero, with accolades from the mayor and governor and a fan club online.

"What he did under those circumstances was nothing short of magnificent," said Pick Freeman, a retired US Airways pilot. "It was a perfectly controlled maneuver. That pilot is a hero."

Water landings, while hazardous, are often the best choice for pilots who can't get back to the airport, said John Cox, a Washington, D.C., aviation safety consultant. Cox, who was a US Airways pilot for 25 years, said a water landing can allow the pilot the opportunity to slowly de-accelerate as gently as possible to prepare for landing.

Landing in water often means fewer obstructions and less trauma than crashing into a solid surface, experts say.

"Where else are you going to put it down in New York City?" asked John Goglia, an aviation safety expert and former NTSB board member in Washington.

Goglia said water landing with no fatalities are unusual but not unprecedented, citing incidents in Japan and San Francisco many years ago.

On Thursday, Flight 1549 stayed intact, allowing everyone to evacuate, a result that didn't surprise a pilot who once flew with Sullenberger.

US Airways pilot Rick Kurner told the Wall Street Journal that he was in the cockpit with Sullenberger about five years ago when the airplane had a hydraulic failure on a trip from Toronto to Pittsburgh. The captain was completely nonchalant, Kurner said.

"It was a nonevent because of Sully," he recalls. "He's just a pleasure to fly with. He's a professional."

Reached by phone Thursday night, Sullenberger's wife, Lorraine, said she was proud of her husband and "I haven't stopped shaking yet." The couple lives in Danville, Calif., where Chesley Sullenberger, a former fighter pilot, is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Center for Catastrophic Risk Management. The center studies safety, infrastructure and preparedness in emergency situations such as industrial accidents and natural disasters.

Sullenberger, who has flown for US Airways since 1980, flew F-4 fighter jets with the Air Force in the 1970s. He then served on a board that investigated aircraft accidents and participated later in several National Transportation Safety Board investigations.

He is president of Safety Reliability Methods, a California firm that uses "the ultra-safe world of commercial aviation" as a base for safety consulting in other fields, according to the company's Web site.

Sullenberger's mailbox at the company was full on Thursday. A group of fans sprang up on Facebook within hours of the emergency landing.

New York Gov. David Paterson pronounced it a "miracle on the Hudson."

In an emergency, this pilot is an expert 01/15/09 [Last modified: Friday, January 16, 2009 7:00am]
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