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Hero pilot meets with investigators

January 17, 2009 7:45:41 PM PST
They are already talking about building a statue of Chesley B. "Sully" Sullenberger. Lucrative book and movie deals could follow. But even though the death-defying pilot of Flight 1549 is being celebrated as a hero, he still faces an investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board that will critique his every action.

As details of his account to investigators emerged Saturday, however, it seemed his prospects for further accolades and celebrity could only increase. He recounted making a split-second decision that not only saved everyone onboard but also spared people on the ground from what he called "catastrophic consequences."

His description, as recounted by NTSB board member Kitty Higgins, underscored passengers' accounts of the cool-headed, decisive captain who steered the hobbled plane calmly to a safe landing in the Hudson River.

With both engines out after the plane crossed paths with a flock of large birds, Sullenberger took control of the aircraft and quickly made the call: The plane was "too low, too slow" and near too many buildings to risk trying to return to LaGuardia Airport or fly to another one in New Jersey.

"We can't do it," he told air traffic controllers. "We're gonna be in the Hudson."

Sullenberger angled the nose of the jet liner downward, to maintain speed. When attempts to restart the engines failed, he started preparing to hit the water. When he landed in the Hudson, passengers opend their eyes in shock: They were still alive.

After they lost electricity, Sullenberger went into the cabin, checking for a count of passengers and rechecking to make sure no one was left behind.

But despite the dramatic tale, union officials say, the continuing investigation may be why Sullenberger has stayed quiet as his star has risen.

"Until the NTSB says, 'He's a hero,' he's under investigation," said James Ray, a spokesman for the US Airline Pilots Association, which represents crews at US Airways. "The NTSB usually discourages people from calling anyone a hero until facts are in."

Although the NTSB has made no suggestion that Sullenberger deserves anything but praise for his handling of the accident, a complicated investigation still needs to proceed, following the interviews of Sullenberger and his first officer, Jeff Skiles, on Saturday by the NTSB.

Sullenberger was seen entering a conference room of a lower Manhattan hotel, surrounded by federal investigators. The silver-haired pilot was wearing a white shirt and slacks and seemed composed. When a reporter approached him for comment, one of the officials responded: "No chance."

The pilots have already given several briefings to a union investigation team, to US Airways officials and to their own lawyers, Ray said. Pilots also routinely have a lawyer accompany them to their NTSB briefing.

He said the process was not an exercise in finger-pointing, but noted that the analysis can be rigorous, and that investigators make every effort to uncover instances of human error or mechanical failure.

But one thing is clear: Sullenberger is a publicist's dream.

"He's down in history now. And if he's handled well, with modesty and intelligence, he will remain a U.S. icon," said prominent New York City publicist Howard Rubenstein.

Rubenstein described the crash-landing as a "few split seconds that have created one of the best publicity events ever."

The pilot had the career and resume that seemed made for this kind of situation: He got his pilot's license at 14, was named best aviator in his class at the Air Force Academy, investigated air disasters, mastered glider flying and even studied the psychology of how airline crews behave in a crisis.

And when Thursday's potential disaster hit, he handled the situation with remarkable calm. As the passengers were helped into rescue boats, he walked through the cabin to make sure everyone got out.

Los Angeles publicist Cindy Rakowitz said Sullenberger projects integrity "by the way his heroic response is talked about by the passengers on the plane, from the moment this happened." She expects his modest demeanor to translate into a smart response to his newfound fame.

"You're not going to see this man on TMZ promoting somebody's jewelry wearing a gold chain," she said, referring to an entertainment-news Web site.

But faced with an onslaught of publicity-seekers, "he's going to have to hire somebody, or US Airways is going to be very, very busy working on his behalf" - fielding producers, directors and book publishers wanting to give him advances on his story.

And NBC announced on Saturday that Sullenberger would first tell his story on the "Today" show to host Matt Lauer on Monday.

Ray said Sullenberger certainly had no shortage of offers.

"He's been approached by every opportunist in the world to tell his story," he said. "This guy could probably sell anything right now."

For starters, his new prominence is bound to attract new business to the private firm he started several years ago to give advice on how to apply aviation safety techniques to other fields.

And while Sullenberger was sequestered, the whole country was coming up with ideas on how to celebrate America's newest hero.

New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg said a key to his city awaits him, and "Sully" got congratulatory phone calls from both President Bush and President-elect Barack Obama.

The pilot's wife, Lorrie Sullenberger, said from their home in Danville, Calif., that a trip to Obama's inauguration for her, her husband and their two daughters was "in the works."

"The Facebook Page of Fans of Sully Sullenberger" had more than 172,000 fans as of Saturday. It proposes a ticker-tape parade up New York's "Canyon of Heroes," and another fan suggests the parade should be a flotilla down the Hudson, adding, "No geese floats will be allowed!!"

Other suggested Facebook ideas include the congressional Medal of Freedom, the highest honor given to a civilian for exceptional service in peacetime; a bridge or tunnel named after Sullenberger; a pay raise "and anything else he wants."

The Facebook page sums up popular feeling toward the pilot: "Woohoo!"

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