By DAVID BAUDER
NEW YORK — Retired pilot Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger expects a lot more from his new job at CBS News than waiting for a plane to crash so he can be a talking head.
Sullenberger, who became a national hero two years ago when he landed a crippled U.S. Airways jet in the Hudson River and saved 155 lives, starts in June as the network’s on-air aviation and safety expert. He wants to keep a close eye on the industry where he worked for decades.
“We can’t assume that because aviation has continued to get safer – accidents are relatively rare now – that we’re doing everything right,” said Sullenberger, who retired last year as an active pilot. “We have to keep actively looking for continuous improvements, looking for systemic deficiencies and fixing them, and not just blaming individuals when there are systemic issues out there.”
Watch Sullenberger Discuss The Hudson River Landing With Katie Couric:
Recent stories about sleeping air traffic controllers should be a warning for the industry, he said.
If schedules continue to be built for controllers, pilots, mechanics, stewardesses that ignore the body’s need for sleep and recovery time, “then ultimately we’re going to create situations where the system will fail.”
Since retiring as an active pilot last year, Sullenberger has kept busy with public speaking, consulting and writing. He’s working on his second book, on leadership; his first, a memoir titled “Highest Duty: My Search for What Really Matters,” came out last year.
His relationship with CBS News developed after giving a “60 Minutes” interview about U.S. Airways Flight 1549 when the show’s executive producer, and now CBS News chairman, Jeff Fager visited his northern California home. Hiring Sullenberger was a coup for CBS, which announced it to cheers at a recent meeting with its affiliated stations.
“There is no more recognizable figure when it comes to something we care a lot about – aviation safety – than Sully,” said CBS News President David Rhodes. “If there was an issue in this area and you were flipping around (the channels), who would you want to see?”
Sullenberger said he could not have imagined all the things made possible in his life by the events of Jan. 15, 2009.
“While the event was certainly traumatic for those of us involved, it ultimately was the source for a lot of wonderful opportunities,” he said. “It turned out, for many of us, our lives were preparation for this event and its aftermath without us really knowing about it.”
Sullenberger recognizes that he’s essentially the public face for the event, although he makes certain to mention his crew and first officer Jeff Skiles, who has been an activist on airline safety issues.
He’ll do most of his work for CBS News out of the network’s affiliate in San Francisco, near his home. That could require some tough hours if there’s a big story and CBS wants him for “The Early Show,” which goes on the air back East at 4 a.m. California time. But years of wake-up calls for flights make it less of a problem for Sullenberger to start early.
CBS’ Rhodes laughed when asked whether Sullenberger is going through any kind of training for the television work.
“If anybody is going to get any training, I think he can train us,” Rhodes said.
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