Capt. Sully Exclusive: Airline Industry Must Take Care of Tired Pilots

US Airways says Capt. Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger will be part of its flight operations safety management team.
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Capt. Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger, hero pilot of the "Miracle on the Hudson," said that without proper rest, his life-saving landing in the Hudson River may not have been possible.

"I'm convinced that had we been tired, had we not gotten sufficient rest the night before, we could not have performed at the same level... I may not have been able to perform as well," Sullenberger told ABC News of the Jan. 15, 2009, incident in which he landed US Airways flight 1549 in the middle of New York's Hudson River, saving 155 lives. "The fact that we got so much so right so quickly under that sudden stress is a testament, not only to our training, but the fact that we had a chance to get sufficient rest."

Sullenberger's comments came following an ABC News investigation which found pilots across the country are reporting to duty after being able to grab only a few hours of sleep on the couches and chairs of crew lounges or in crowded dormitory-style "crash pads" with up to a dozen other pilots or crew members. Industry officials denied a large number of pilots fly on little sleep.

CLICK HERE to watch ABC News' exclusive interview with Capt. Sullenberger.

But Sullenberger, who retired after his famous Hudson landing, said pilot fatigue is an industry-wide problem and has called for improved, regulated sleep scheduling to ensure pilots are properly rested before taking off with an airplane full of passengers.

If you're a pilot or crew member with a story from the tired skies, we want to hear it. CLICK HERE to share your story.

Pilots can earn as little as $17,000 a year, and many who are based in expensive hub cities choose to live far away in more affordable towns and "commute" to the airports where they work. The airlines do not provide these "commuter" pilots with sleeping accommodations before they report for duty. Sullenberger said their commutes cut down dangerously on limited resting time, and their low salaries mean many junior pilots cannot afford proper hotel rooms, meaning they resort to crash pads and sofa naps in crew lounges.

"We have to create a situation in which it's possible" for pilots to get a good, affordable night's sleep, he said. "We have to value this profession enough that people don't have to live out of a crash pad or a crew room."

CLICK HERE to go inside a crash pad and crew lounge.

The rest, Sullenberger said, is "crucially important" for everyone on board.

In the course of the ABC News investigation, other current and former pilots described fatigue as a factor in missing radio calls, entering incorrect readings in instruments and even falling asleep in mid-flight.

"The interesting thing about fatigue is, it's insidious. It's not always obvious that it's affecting you," he said. Beyond missing relatively small things, Sullenberger said a bigger concern is when fatigue affects a pilot's judgment.

"If on the last landing of the night, when the weather's bad, if you're approach isn't quite stabilized, and you need to go around and try again, you have to have that willingness, that energy to be able to say, 'This isn't right. I've got to act now,'" he said.

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Plane Crash After Pilot Sleeps in Crew Lounge

When asked if he feared something bad could come out of such pilot fatigue, Sullenberger said "It has already happened."

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