Chesley Sullenberger On The FAA, TSA & What Parts Of Flights Are The Most Dangerous

Posted Jul 19th 2011 07:30 AM



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Back in May, it was announced that Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger, the former pilot who manned the "Miracle on the Hudson" plane, was to become a CBS News Aviation and Safety Expert.

Last week, we caught up with the hero pilot from his home in the Bay Area to get his thoughts on the sleeping air traffic controller issue (for which the FAA has recently created new rules), the growing anger over the TSA's patdown policies, and his favorite flying destinations.

What's your take on the FAA's sleeping air traffic controller problem?

This issue is a symptom of a larger issue not specific just to air traffic controllers. Flying requires a lot of attention from pilots, flight attendants and maintenance workers; we have to deal with the underlying factors and need to have a full appreciation for human ability and limitations.

We need to build a schedule that addresses our physiological needs. In the wee hours of the morning, our bodies want us to sleep. We see more incidents around this time. Workers need to get adequate rest at the rest time of night. Plus, fatigue is cumulative, it only gets worse over time.

It's a 24-hour job for pilots, especially red-eye pilots and cargo pilots who often fly at night. I am encouraged by the ongoing discussions between the FAA and the union. It's been 30 or 40 years since pilot fatigue rules were updated, but we're expecting an updated, final rule in August sometime.

What do you think about those pesky geese being used as food for the needy in Pennsylvania?

[He hadn't heard this story.]

Well, that's a different take than I've heard before!

All pilots will have hit a small bird once or twice from time to time, but pilots aren't specifically trained for that scenario.

On that day [January 15, 2009], we saw the geese but not in enough time. They struck from side to side, at the cockpit windows, at the wings. Two went into the right engine, at least one went into the left and they caused irreparable damage.

So how do you get rid of the geese? There is something in a test phase to add ground base radar near major airports to alert our people on the ground of nearby birds. They'll then alert pilots in the air.

How do you think the TSA is handling its responsibilities?

There are real threats out there, but we need to do a better job than we are now. We are too reactive. But, we're now talking about using intelligence effectively to take a more threat-based approach. Terror isn't one-sized fits all.

Instead of looking for things, we should look for behavioral signs and ask a few questions: Does the behavior fit? Are there flags? Are there signs? We're training behavioral experts, but that requires years of training.

The truth is, travel is so much safer now than it was when I started flying 30 years ago. It used to be that a person's chances of being in a fatal crash were 1 in 2 million; now its 1 in 10 million. Flying is by far the safest mode of travel.

What's the riskiest part of a flight?

Planes are statistically at more risk during take off and landing. There are more incidents during landing because of cloud height, wind, visibility, runway friction, etc.

Pilots are trained to make it seem easy, but it's not. [While at cruising altitude] there's this misconception that pilots let autopilot take over. We do have the technology, but any airplane must be controlled by a pilot's mind. As a pilot, you have to ask yourself: How many levels do I want to put between my mind and the controls? Do I use some level of technology? Pilots are completely engaged and are aware.

Flying requires discipline, diligence and situational awareness. Pilots get into problems when there's a distraction or when they're taken out of the loop.

Any tips for terrified travelers?

The whole system is robust and designed for redundancy. Airplanes are designed to take care of stress. If you're panicked, remember that airplanes are like those car commercials that say: "closed course with a trained professional. Don't try this at home." It's the same thing with flying.

That said, it's incumbent for travelers to take safety [into their hands, too.] Learn the emergency exits; learn how many rows are between you and an exit; does the plane offer life vests or seat cushions? It's your responsibility.

What are your favorite places to fly to?

Besides my home airport of San Francisco? I like not just landing in Philadelphia for the 500th time.

In my time with US Airways, we did a lot of flying to the Caribbean and Latin America. Air traffic is less dense, there's less chatter on the airwaves and you can look out and see the beauty of the islands and the shallow, turquoise waters.

I like bringing people to happy places. I like bringing people to places they want to go.

Filed Under: Air Travel, News

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Sally Egert

As a comparative low time pilot for over a period of 45 years, I totally respect the skill and observations of Sully. I was a CFI for 20 years on a part time basis and compared to Sully my 3K hours in general aviation aircraft has given me a respect for those who have the responsibility of flying the "heavies" ...We all look forward to his continuing contribution to commercial and general aviation.

July 22 2011 at 1:23 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to Sally Egert's comment
Dave Brough

Sally. It takes ten times the skill and (human) resources to fly a GA aircraft over a Heavy. Even Sully would agree that those things fly themselves and when it came to a certain flock of geese, go where no angel would fear to fly. As for 'skill', when it came to ditching an aircraft, the only 'skill' the gentleman had was three-and-a-half minutes of on the job training. Take yourself back to 'lesson one': see and avoid. Now ask yourself if you still have respect for a man who, if there were any justice, would be facing a jury and charges of reckless endangerment.

May 19 2012 at 8:09 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

I think

I I think Capt. Sully should be elected to replace the current resident at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
Start at the top level of intellect and responsibility and work down. We as a country need to become
responsible ourselves.

July 21 2011 at 4:40 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply

A little disappointed in Sully's answer on the geese.

Did he really ask, "So how do you get rid of the geese?"

I don't think that is the salient question to ask.

Surely, it cannot be option to "get rid of" billions of birds who fly.

The question should be, "How do we better understand the flying patterns of birds and utilize the technologies we have in order to avoid bird strikes?"

It might also be suggested returning to four engine planes, rather than two engine airliners. The reason for that seems obvious.

July 20 2011 at 8:43 AM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to mandy787's comment

Mandy, read his whole answer. He's not saying get rid of the geese, just introducing the subject, and saying the same thing you are.

July 21 2011 at 1:32 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
Amanda Ashley

Each time I see or read something about Capt. Sully I am impressed by his intelligence, understanding, and comprehensive level-headedness. Maybe, perhaps, he could train our politicians to be more like him? If they used his approach to things all of our lives would be so much better.

July 19 2011 at 12:57 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to Amanda Ashley's comment

There are a lot of bright people out there, and somewhat less with class acts - certainly none in the US congress. On rare occasion you find both in the same person - like Sully. He's so good that even the bungling, incompetents John Pistole and Janet Napolitano, and Mr. Political Correctness (gotta get elected) Obama have difficulty finding fault. He's so diplomatic that it is almost hard to decipher what he is really saying, which is PROFILE. No matter what the three political correctness prostitutes say, any effective solution must be profile-based.

July 21 2011 at 2:56 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply

What a great article, written by a class act who explains a lot of truths about flying. It is safer than ever. Modern jetliners are marvels of engineering. Sully is also dead on about our reactive approach to terror. I think people would have a lot less problem with the TSA if they were more proactive, instead of "responding to yesterday's threats." Most airline pilots & flight crews are professionals like Sully. Good to know that when hurtling through the sky in a tube 7 miles above the earth at 600 MPH.

July 19 2011 at 10:35 AM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to gr8bsn's comment
Dave Brough

gr8bsn, if Sully had been more proactive', instead of gawking "the beautiful view of the river...", he would have been watching where he was going. If he had been watching where he was going, we wouldn't know the man from Adam. And if he were truly 'professional', he would fess up about the two dozen mistakes he made in the course of those three-and-a-half minutes that marked him as a hero, but should really mark him as a felon convicted of criminal negligence.

May 19 2012 at 8:39 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

We get so jaded and angry with the news, almost afraid to turn on the TV in the mornings or read a newspaper which tells us about all the crimes committed and we go out the door with a heavy heart. But then along comes somebody like Sully, a true gentleman and hero, who didn't give a second thought to something that was impossible and watched over the saving of his passengers and when we see him or read his thoughts, we have hope again that there are some good people left in the world. Sully gave us back our optimism, a gigantic accomplishment narrowed down to a soft spoken man who just did his job.

July 19 2011 at 10:28 AM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to Janny09's comment
Dave Brough

Janny, sully may be a gentleman, but he's no hero. By gawking the view of the river and distracting his First Officer, he authored the scenario that put him and 154 others into the same river and destroyed an $80 million dollar aircraft. That's hardly what I call "a man who just did his job". His job was to deliver his airplane and passengers safely to their destination.

May 19 2012 at 8:42 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply