Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Captain Sully Sullenberger Flies with Virgin Atlantic Passengers

Not many people can say 'I've flown with Captain 'Sully' Sullenberger!' the flying hero catapulted to global fame after landing

his US Airways jet on the Hudson River in January.

But passengers last night on board the Virgin Atlantic flight from San Francisco airport to Heathrow can! The celebrated captain flew as a first class passenger with his wife and two children.

Most passengers were unaware of his presence on the scheduled 4.30 pm flight, though not so my travelling companion, Maureen, whose eagle-eyes and media brain - she works in marketing for a major company in San Fran - spotted him near Duty Free in the airport.

'I bumped into him when I was coming out of Duty Free and he was with his wife and two girls, and I recognized him from the TV,' said Maureen, a mother of three children travelling with six-year-old Finn.

'So I just walked over to him and said, 'Excuse me, do you mind if I just say hello and shake your hand, because I'd love to meet you and with my little boy, Finn.'

'And he said, 'Yeah, absolutely,' and shook my hand and asked where we were going. And that was how I found out we were on the same flight!'

He just seemed very unaffected,' was Maureen's opinion. 'Just very friendly and asked us a couple of questions, our names and asked Finn how old he was, even though he was travelling with his family and they were waiting for him.'

Maureen was struck by 'just how incredibly calm he comes across. He presents this image of someone who takes everything in his stride,' she said. ' But,' she remembered, 'I do know from the interview with Larry King that he suffered - from the stress of the near air disaster. He couldn't sleep for days and couldn't think about when he would be ready to go back to work.'

Maureen, like myself, was trying to quell incipient anxieties in the wake of the Air France disaster. The thought of such a flying presence on board was very reassuring.

'But I wonder how the pilot feels!' she said.

With the presence of Captain Sullenberger and in the shadow of the missing Air France plane, I interviewed a few passengers about their attitudes to flying, and even found one young man who has experienced a near-flying accident.

Seated at the back of the plane was Bulgarian-born Pacha and her husband, Wasil, who live in the Bay Area,

How did she feel about flying? I asked Pacha first.

'Comfortable,' was her reply.

Was she affected by the Air France disaster?

'It happens,' she said, matter of factly. 'You never know what will happen to you. You just have to pray!'

Did she know, I said, that Sully Sullenberger was on board with his family?

Her face became animated with surprise and delight,

'He lives in our area, in Danville,' was her instant comment. Then she added, 'I feel even more comfortable!'

Also on the plane were Tim and Emma, a young couple who had been visiting friends in America and were returning to their home on the Essex and Suffolk border.

How did they feel about flying?

'No worries!' said Tim. 'There's a risk in anything so if you want to go on holiday, you have to get it into perspective. you could have an accident on the way to the airport.'

What did they think of the Air France tragedy?

They looked blankly at me, so I explained.

'How do Americans find world news?' said Tim, who had been scouring news channels in his hotel for international news. Like many visitors, I suggested, they had either been lost in a maze of channels or constricted by a limited hotel package.

'I do at times feel slightly apprehensive,' said Emma returning to the subject, 'because of claustrophobia and the time - ie spent on a plane - and that you can't get off, decide to stop or walk. But I'm aware it's the safest form of travel and if you want to go somewhere you've got to do it.'

Her attitude to flying was coloured by the whole airport experience.

'It's slightly more security-conscious coming back from America than (travelling) from the UK, which makes you a bit more uncomfortable, but it's for a reason.'

Tim had been aware of extra spot checks being made, the combined effect of which made Emma both more nervous and reassured at the same time. 'I do think about it - ie air accidents. I wouldn't want to fly regularly,' she said.

A comment that suddenly spurred a memory in Tim.

'I actually had a very near-miss in America in a single-engine craft,' he said. 'It was in Lake Tahoe a few years ago and it hasn't affected my fear of flying at all. We had an aborted landing because of a strong cross wind, and on going round again we couldn't get any height and it was purely pilot error, he hadn't put his flaps down. That was pretty hair-raising at the time!'

How did they feel about having Sully Sullenberger on board?

'It makes us feel very reassured,' said Emma.

'I'm actually watching Airplane - the disaster movie - as we speak,' grinned Tim, ? King of Cool or masochist!

'We've got a lady pilot,' added Emma, 'that's why he's on board!' she said but commenting on a serious note that our female captain was a lady of exceptional talent.

'I wonder how our pilot feels with him on board!' she continued.

Sully's on board...there's pressure!!!'

I can report our flight was smooth and fear-less, and enlivened by active children and for a while a crying baby so there were plenty of distractions. Attentive and friendly stewards and stewardesses made for a pleasant flight.

We landed at Heathrow beneath sunny and partly cloudy skies almost exactly on time at 10.30 am.

After the landing on the Hudson River, though, it was reported that Richard Branson offered to double Captain Sullenberger's salary if he flew for Virgin. He also, according to The Week - - said the Captain could 'become one of the astronauts in my intergalactic spaceship company. The man can write his own ticket with me.'

Captain Sullenberger declined the offers, but perhaps he could be persuaded to become a resident first class passenger?

Whatever... newly-minted badges are being released.

'I've flown with Captain Sully Sullenberger!'

pics show: passengers on board the flight on Tuesday evening; Captain Chesley B. 'Sully' Sullenberger 111 throwing the opening ceremonial pitch for the San Francisco Giants - see blog; view of London and the wing tip of the plane as we approach the runway

more in next blog

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