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Captain Sully: One Year After the ‘Miracle’

It's amazing what splashing down a jet on the Hudson River can do for your image.

It's been a year to the day since Capt. Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger guided US Airways Flight 1549 into the frigid waters off Manhattan, saving the lives of all 155 people aboard the Airbus A320.

The bizarre trek that Sullenberger's plane took that day is perhaps equaled only by the odyssey that his life has taken: His national prominence has vaulted him into the realm of an aviation superhero.

He has written a book, presided over the Rose Bowl parade, gotten a standing ovation at the Super Bowl, attended President Obama's inauguration, and been ranked second in Time's Top 100 "Heroes & Icons" of 2009. And he threw out the first pitch of the San Francisco Giants' home opener wearing a jersey with the number 155.

The man sitting next to Sullenberger, co-pilot Jeffrey Skiles, 50, has also gotten a taste of the limelight. Once an anonymous co-pilot, he now serves as vice president of the Coalition of Airline Pilots Association, lobbying Congress on safety issues.

Neither pilot flies much anymore. Sullenberger, 59, was promoted to management, where he works on safety issues.


Q: Describe what your year has been like.

Sullenberger: It's been a remarkably good year, 2009. We had a wonderful day on Jan. 15, 2009. The fact that this event was witnessed by so many, the fact that it had such a good outcome and it happened at a time in the world's history when people were actively looking for good news because of the things that were going wrong in the world, I think has given this story enduring power to touch people's lives and to inspire them. I'm more than happy to be the public face of such a good event.

Skiles: If you were to find somebody else who has lived the life that I have lived over the last year, you'd have to say Forrest Gump. I could talk for hours about all the things that you don't even know about that I've been able to experience and do. And it's great.

To some extent, it's almost like everything that's happened happens around you rather than to you. I still live in the same house, drive the same cars, have the same family.

Q: What led you to instinctively switch on the backup power generator after the birds struck?

Sullenberger: It was my long experience on the airplane, and my in-depth system knowledge that led me to take the first steps that I knew would do us the most good.

Q: What led to a successful splashdown?

Sullenberger: What helped us that day is that we had two highly trained, highly experienced pilots in the cockpit and a highly experienced cabin crew who could handle something that was so unanticipated that we had never trained for. . . . That was something that technology cannot do. That's something that people with judgment and experience had to do.

Q: One of your specialties is the study of how pilots can work together to minimize errors. Can these techniques help in other fields?

Sullenberger: I gave my first speech on patient safety in San Francisco, earlier this fall, and I was talking just about that, about applying all the lessons we have learned in aviation over the last 30 or 40 years to medicine. There are people who are doing it now, using surgical checklists for example.

Q: Why have you become a lobbyist and representative of union issues?

Skiles: Suddenly, Sully and I have a voice. Right or wrong, we have become the voice of airline pilots. I thought it was my responsibility to take that up and embrace that role.

Q: Do you still enjoy flying?

Skiles: When I go fly a trip, it's just nice to just get up there with the cockpit door closed and just fly. Just talk with the captain. It's just nice to get back to the way it used to be sometimes.

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