But it wasn’t really his aircraft. It hadn’t been for years. When Chesley B. Sullenberger III was first starting out, 40 years and 19,663 flight hours ago, commercial-airline pilots were like gods. It was the age of Chuck Yeager and Pan Am, and the captain in uniform was a breed apart, on a par with Hollywood actors and professional athletes. The job was prestigious and well paid; kids wanted to visit the cockpit, to grow up to fly. And on a clear but frigid January Thursday, when Sully set his plane down in the middle of the Hudson River, becoming the first pilot ever to execute a controlled water landing in a modern commercial airliner without a single fatality, the age of the hero pilot was once again, for a brief moment, alive. Sully’s deification, which began almost instantly, moved from the Inauguration to the Super Bowl and continues next week, when the pilot is set to appear on 60 Minutes and David Letterman.
But the truth is, in the years since Sully began flying commercial jets, piloting has become anything but glamorous. Automation has taken much of the actual flying out of the job. The airlines’ business woes have led to longer hours and lower pay. Flying is now governed by enough rules and regulations to fill several encyclopedias. The people attracted to the profession today are different, too. Where the piloting ranks were once made up of former Air Force jocks, many of them combat veterans, they are now filled mainly with civilians for whom flying is less an adventure than a job. “Twenty-five years ago, we were a step below astronauts,” says one veteran pilot. “Now we’re a step above bus drivers. And the bus drivers have a better pension.”
From a passenger’s point of view, that’s mostly a good thing. Each year, hundreds of millions of people fly commercial in the U.S., and fatalities are almost always in the low double digits. In the past two years, there have been absolutely no deaths at all. Changes in the way pilots are recruited and trained are a key reason: In the vast majority of situations, airline-safety experts say, you want the company man, not the cowboy. But then there are the exceptions, the Miracles on the Hudson, the rare moments when it is following the rules, not subverting them, that becomes the riskier course of action. Pilots like Sully who can perform in such circumstances are a dying breed.
Sully has been in the business long enough to witness firsthand the domestication of the airline pilot. In the early days, pilots were largely uneducated farm boys or blue-collar kids who left home to become barnstormers. Some might never have spent a minute in flight school or read a flying manual. But as commercial air travel began rapidly expanding, the airlines embraced the image of the heroic captain, the distinguished man in uniform you can trust with your life. The industry paid top dollar for a new generation of service-academy-educated aviators, many of whom had been through Vietnam. This was Sully’s generation. By the seventies, as many as 80 percent of commercial-airline pilots had served in the military. “When Sully first got hired,” says Keith Hagy, the director of engineering and air safety for the Air Line Pilots Association, the pilots’ union, “he probably made a pile of money.”
The airlines liked military pilots, in part, because “the government had done all that work for them,” says Don Skiados, who has worked closely with pilots for 40 years as a past chairman of the Aviation Accreditation Board International. The military had already tested the pilots’ psychological abilities, emotional traits, knowledge base, reaction time, and ability to make judgments. The only downside of the military background was that the pilots were, by necessity, trained to be risk-takers. “The approach to the mission is that this is war,” says Bob Ober, who worked as a pilot for Pan Am for 25 years and Delta for 10. “We gotta go. It doesn’t matter if certain things are inoperative, we’re gonna take some risks.”
Since that time, pilot culture has done almost a 180. The maverick pilot has given way to the professional—the captain who knows how to put aside his ego and not take unnecessary risks. The change began when the military started downsizing after Vietnam and its talent pool dried up. The pilots of the military made room for a generation of pilots largely educated in flight schools offering four-year degree programs. Candidates racked up flight hours on small commuter planes over Albuquerque and Toledo, not in fighter jets.
The planes also began to change. Where a Vietnam-era pilot could fly more or less by stick and rudder, today’s pilots fly primarily by computer. Sully, for instance, was flying the Airbus 320. On older aircraft, a pilot pulls back on a wheel attached to cables that literally pull the plane up. On an Airbus 320, he pulls back a joystick that sends a signal to the computer’s auto-throttle. If he’s doing it wrong, the computer often corrects him, thrusting if he doesn’t do it soon enough, never stalling if he pulls back too hard. Takeoff has preprogrammed speeds; the pilot just moves a lever into a notch. Practically everything about the Airbus assumes the human factor to be the most dangerous thing about the flight. Incredibly, you can go on autopilot from as low as 100 feet in the air. Although some pilots worry about overreliance on technology and the distractions it can cause, most like a tricked-out plane. Still, there’s no getting around the fact that automation has taken control away from pilots. It’s the same with regard to air-traffic controllers and airline operations. Pilots used to have to navigate themselves; now it’s all done with GPS systems. Pilots used to have more discretion over takeoff times and maintenance decisions; now they’re frequently overruled.