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Praise is due to the captain of US Airways Flight 1549, who achieved hero status yesterday by deftly guiding his stricken plane — filled with both passengers and fuel — to a life-saving belly landing in New York’s Hudson River. All passengers and crew survived and escaped from the plane, which fortuitously came to rest near a harbor at 40th street, from which a flotilla of boats was able to rescue all aboard from the frigid waters. We’ll long remember the incredible images of passengers standing on the wings of the partially submerged plane, looking for all the world as if they were walking on the water.

And I hope we’ll remember Captain Chesley B. “Sully” Sullenberger III, whose combination of practiced skill and cool-headed flying gave passengers a chance to try out those funky airline life vests, rather than just going down with them.

The plane crash, thought to have been caused by a flock of birds, upstaged the swan song of President George W. Bush, who gave an unapologetic farewell speech before leaving office. It would be hard to deny that President Bush, with the manipulating guidance of co-pilot Dick Cheney, captained the country into a series of avoidable crashes ranging from the greed-driven flameout of the financial markets to the ill-fated war in Iraq and the loss of American stature around the world.

With inauguration day approaching, hopes are high that a new captain can guide the economy to a soft landing while also piloting the country out of the war and returning America’s global standing to its accustomed heights.

It will be a tall order, beset by many obstacles. President-elect Barack Obama will need our prayers and our patience: let’s not be stingy with either.

[Photo by Janis Krums, who used Twitter to upload the image while riding a ferry boat en route to rescuing passengers.]

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