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Hero pilot Sully heads back to the sky from LaGuardia

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LaGuardia Airport is known for being crowded, but typically the throngs lining the terminal are travelers, not journalists.

But the broadcast news trucks replacing taxicabs along the US Airways arrival terminal was not the only unusual thing at the airport last Thursday: A New York hero had returned to the skies.

Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger III and Jeff Skiles flew the plane from LaGuardia to Charlotte, N.C., around 12:59 p.m., completing the cycle that began eight months ago.

Sullenberger and Skiles were at the controls of the Airbus A320 that took off from LaGuardia Jan. 15 and promptly sucked a Canada goose into each engine. With no power, the plane began to lose altitude.

Sullenberger was given clearance to make for New Jersey’s Teterboro Airport, but realized he would not have the power and opted to ditch the plane in the Hudson River instead.

What happened next is well-documented. A small flotilla of ferries raced out to the still-floating plane and rescued all 155 people on board. Sullenberger said the first craft was on the scene four minutes after the jet splashed down.

The city hailed the crew as heroes, and Sullenberger, a lifelong pilot, was thrust into the public eye as he was praised by Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama.

It was not Sullenberger’s first time at the controls since that fateful day eight months ago. He first flew passengers again three times: Twice on Sept. 11, and then again last Thursday morning from Charlotte, N.C., to New York.

“I was home. It felt very natural, very comfortable,” he said. “Even though it had been a few months, it seemed like no time at all.”

Sullenberger appeared slightly embarrassed when asked how he felt when the passengers applauded during his preflight announcement on the flight to New York that morning.

“I may just not mention my name,” he joked.

Skiles has been flying passengers since April. He said the scene was a far cry from his return to the cockpit, which was covered by a single reporter.

“I have never flown with anybody who takes such care in what they do both in and out of the cockpit,” he said of Sullenberger.

Sullenberger deferred a question about the bird mitigation measures around LaGuardia to Skiles, who has spoken in the past about the issue.

“Every bird responds to something different,” Skiles said, noting that some cannot stand loud noise while others are deterred by hunters shooting one bird and leaving the body behind. “In our case, these were migratory waterfowl. There’s not much you can do about that in my view.”

Though Flight 1549’s flight attendants were not present for the trip, at least one Flight 1549 passenger switched flights to accompany Sullenberger back to Charlotte.

“I’m just so excited to be with them. It’s terrific,” said Barry Leonard, a business executive who had T-shirts printed up with photos of the ditched airliner. “I really think of it as part of the healing process.”

Reach reporter Jeremy Walsh by e-mail at jewalsh@cnglocal.com or by phone at 718-229-0300, Ext. 154.

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