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Chesley Sullenberger marks 5th anniversary of 'Miracle on the Hudson'

Tournament of Roses Parade Grand Marshal Airline pilot

Tournament of Roses Parade Grand Marshal Airline pilot Chelsey B. Sullenberger III participates in the 121st Annual Tournament of Roses parade in Pasadena, California. (Jan. 1, 2010) Credit: Getty Images

Capt. Chesley B. Sullenberger III has had an eventful life since saving 155 people by bringing US Airways Flight 1549 to a miraculous landing on the Hudson River after a flock of geese jammed the plane's engines five years ago Wednesday.

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 Journal of Patient Safety "to bring a sense of urgency" to the need to reduce the estimated 200,000 deaths each year caused by medical errors. "That's the equivalent of three airliners crashing per day," he told amNewYork.

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. However he returned to flying before retiring from US Airways in 2010.

Having dealt firsthand with an airplane crippled by a flock of birds, Sullenberger is disappointed that New York 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 by safety experts. The plan is backed by Mayor Bill de Blasio and former 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," said Sullenberger, whose Airbus A320-214 took off from LaGuardia headed for Charlotte, N.C.

Sullenberger, who lives in Danville, Calif., is in town this week to promote a new $5,400 watch, the "208 seconds Aeroscope." That's how long it took Sullenberger to splash land the Airbus. A portion of sales of the timepiece will be donated to the American Red Cross and the Rory Staunton Foundation, which supports education and outreach efforts that aim to rapidly diagnose and treat sepsis, particularly in children.

The retired pilot isn't shy about his affinity for 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 said.

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," Sullenberger said. 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," Sullenberger acknowledged. Capt. Al Haynes, who crash-landed a DC-10 in Sioux City in 1989, reached out to console Sullenberger after his traumatic landing.

Sullenberger did the same with Qantas pilot Richard de Crispigny after his emergency landing at the Singapore Changi Airport in 2010.

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