No Way to Treat a Hero

Would Chesley Sullenberger really want to be FAA Administrator?

Sullenberger with his daughters in 2001 -- pre-fame. (Photo courtesy Chesley Sullenberger)

Scuttlebutt inside the FAA has it that Chesley Sullenberger, or “Sully,” the pilot who executed a spectacularly successful ditching of a USAirways Airbus A320 in New York’s Hudson River, is the object of a petition drive to have him replace Randy Babbitt, who resigned as FAA administrator following a drunk driving arrest.

Now Sullenberger may be a hero and a durn’ good pilot, and yes, FAA administrators who were pilots have had some modest advantages over non-pilots in speaking the language and knowing the aviation community. But Sullenberger has also come across in his many public appearances as a nice, modest guy. He has stepped up to the plate when various causes have asked him to be their spokesperson. And he’s written a couple of books, one of which is awaiting release.

Well, Mr. Smith may have survived Washington when he served a term there, but the town can sometimes be pretty hard on FAA chiefs. Before the FAA administrator’s term was defined as five years in length, to extend it beyond the election cycle, each new presidential administration had to find an acceptable candidate for approval by Congress. It was a political football, and both parties knew it. Jack Shaffer, Nixon’s man, was pilloried by the air traffic controllers’ attorney, F. Lee Bailey, and when Shaffer left, Alexander Butterfield (a pilot, by the way) moved from the White House Staff office to FAA headquarters as administrator — where he promptly became entangled in the Nixon Watergate scandal. J. Lynn Helms set about modernizing the FAA, and must have irked somebody with some power, because the Wall Street Journal ran a series of unrelenting attacks on his education record, which caused him to resign.

It’s gotten better since the advent of five-year terms, and the first administrator under the new rule, Jane Garvey, as well as her successor, Marion Blakey, seemed to thrive at the job. Both were professional managers and highly attuned to the politics of the capital. For now, Michael Huerta is acting administrator, and he has a reputation as a manager. Maybe Sullenberger’s petitioners just want a pilot back at the top, but do they really want to do that to a nice guy?