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Freedom of Flight Award Sully and Skiles

July 21, 2015 - Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger and Jeff Skiles are best known as the pilots who saved all 155 people onboard an Airbus A320 when they successfully “landed” the plane on the Hudson River after it struck a flock of Canada geese shortly after takeoff. But it’s what those two have done since that January 2009 flight that makes them stand out.

As advocates for aviation and aviation safety standards, Sullenberger and Skiles will receive EAA’s Freedom of Flight Award at the annual meeting today. The Freedom of Flight Award is the organization's highest honor, given annually since 1986 to individuals whose contributions to aviation closely mirror the integrity, entrepreneurship, and innovativeness of EAA members.

A general aviation pilot and former fighter pilot for the U.S. Air Force from 1973-80, Sullenberger retired in 2010 after 30 years as a commercial pilot. However, he is also an aviation safety expert and accident investigator, serves as a CBS News aviation and safety expert, and is the founder and CEO of Safety Reliability Methods, Inc., a company dedicated to management, safety, performance and reliability consulting.

Skiles is now a full-time pilot for American Airlines, but he spent 2012-14 working as vice president of communities and member programs at EAA. He has also served as vice president of the Coalition of Airline Pilots Associations, where he represented 28,000 airline pilots and worked with Congress on laws that made air travel safer. In addition, he has testified before congressional committees on issues of aviation safety, and commented on airline regulations to major news outlets.

Both men say they are honored to receive EAA’s top award. “To be on the same list of people such as Paul Poberezny, Neil Armstrong, and Scott Crossfield, who are all icons of this industry, is amazing,” Skiles said.

Sullenberger says they felt obligated to be active on many fronts after they discovered that the news story of their famous flight was not going to fade away as most news stories do. “We felt we owed it to all pilots to use this event for good, to improve safety and to improve the status and appreciation not only for the piloting profession, but also to all the ways aviation is important in our lives,” Sullenberger says. “I feel an intense obligation because we have been given a bully pulpit that few ever have. The traveling public doesn’t have an advocate; Jeff and I have tried to be that advocate.”

In fact, after the Colgan Air Flight 3407 crash on Feb. 12, 2009 that killed 50, the two worked with the Flight 3407 families to strengthen airline safety rules and regulations. The families were able to persuade Congress to pass the Airline Safety and FAA Extension Act of 2010, which boosted minimum flight experience requirements for airline pilots from 250 hours to 1,500 hours and more.

“But we must constantly try to re-fight battles that have already been won, to keep some in aviation from rolling back the standards because they think the high safety standards are somehow too inconvenient, too burdensome and too costly,” Sullenberger says. “It’s an on-going struggle.”

Sullenberger and Skiles also served as co-chairmen of EAA’s Young Eagles program from September 2009 to July 2014.

“We owe the program to Tom Poberezny who dreamed of it and brought it to fruition, but also to the EAA chapter members who fly Young Eagles,” said Skiles, adding that the program’s success can’t be attributed to either of them. “It’s successful because chapter members have really embraced the program.”

Sullenberger added, “We’re just standing on the shoulders of the entire organization and everyone else who has helped.”


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