Hero Pilot Faces Mandatory Retirement, Reduced Pension

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At age 57, Chesley Sullenberger hardly qualifies as a geezer in my book. But as commercial airline pilots go, the man who is being hailed for his flawless emergency landing of a U.S. Airways jet in the Hudson River is certainly getting up there in years.

The San Francisco Examiner summarized their local hero’s extensive background:

If a Hollywood producer called central casting in search of an actor to play a pilot in a disaster movie, he would probably wind up with somebody who looked a lot like “Sully” Sullenberger: the silver hair of experience, the trimmed mustache of precision and the kind of twinkly, fatherly eyes that lend confidence when accompanying a friendly “Welcome aboard.”

Sullenberger has decades of experience not only flying planes–first F-4’s for the US Air Force and since 1980 all kinds of aircraft for US Airways–but of studying and teaching how to fly them more safely. His resume shows experience flying everything from a glider to a jumbo jet.

After both engines blew, Sullenberger reportedly told his 150 passengers to “brace for impact because we’re going down” before maneuvering over a bridge and between skyscrapers to land the plane safely on the river. He walked the legnth of the sinking jet twice to verify that noone was aboard before exiting himself. The Wall Street Journal described Sullenberger’s handling of what it called “one of the rarest and most technically challenging feats in commercial aviation”:

Although commercial jetliners are equipped with life vests and inflatable slides, there have been few successful attempts at water landings during the jet age. Indeed, even though pilots go through the motions of learning to ditch a plane in water, the generally held belief is that such landings would almost certainly result in fatalities.

Capt. Chesley B. Sullenberger III, a veteran US Airways pilot, pulled it off while simultaneously coping with numerous other challenges.

Might Sullenberger’s 40 years of experience have something to with this feat? It’s well worth asking, since until last year, the hero pilot would have been less than three years away from forced retirement. In December 2007, after decades of debate, the federal government finally passed a law raising the mandatory retirement age for commercial airline pilots from 60 to 65. Until 2006, the United States wouldn’t even allow foreign planes with pilots over 60 to land at American airports.

One reason older pilots wanted to keep working was to make up for their decimated pensions. When U.S. Airways went bankrupt (for the first time) in 2002, the company’s underfunding of its pension plan had reached some $2.5 million. The federal government’s Pension Benefit Guarantee Corp. agreed to take over the plan, but is covering only a fraction of the losses.

As the Chicago Tribune reported at the time, older pilots who wanted to keep working faced opposition even from some of their own colleagues, who worried that “safety may be compromised since pilots in their 60s may find it tougher to battle fatigue or rebound from jet lag than younger colleagues.”

These folks might want to ask the passengers on U.S. Airways Flight 1549 if they would have preferred a 30-year-old at the controls today.

This post also appears on James Ridgeway’s new blog, Unsilent Generation.

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