BUFFALO, N.Y. (AP) — The public face of the probe into the crash of Continental Connection Flight 3407 is a 62-year-old former Air Force fighter pilot and stunt flyer deemed so trustworthy he once carried the nuclear codes for President Ronald Reagan.
Steven Chealander found himself in his most high-profile role yet as one of five National Transportation Safety Board members who head to a crash site at a minute's notice.
He said his two years on the NTSB have allowed him to apply the lessons he's learned from air disasters to make flight safer — "the highlight reel" of his career, he said.
The past week, Chealander has served as the NTSB's link to the families of the victims of Flight 3407 and to the public through daily news conferences and talking to reporters. He's been the man behind the podium on all the television networks, speaking with authority about the crash that killed 49 people on the plane and one on the ground in Clarence, N.Y., near Buffalo.
On Thursday, Chealander told The Associated Press he would be leaving the NTSB at the end of this month. President Bush had nominated him to continue serving but he was not confirmed before the new administration and new Congress took office.
As the board member assigned to Flight 3407, Chealander's job is not to investigate the crash but to be the spokesman, so his departure will not have any effect on the probe, said Ted Lopatkiewicz, spokesman for the NTSB in Washington.
He's been tapping into a wealth of knowledge acquired from decades of personal experience.
The Dallas-area resident was an Air Force fighter pilot for 22 years, following in the path of his father who did the same in World War II. Chealander flew in the first Gulf War and was a member of the Thunderbirds, the Air Force's air demonstration team of elite pilots.
He flew a 737 for 16 years with American Airlines before age requirements forced him to retire with a final flight the day before his 60th birthday. As is the tradition with airlines, his wife was a passenger on the flight.
"Just before I flew, I said: 'I've really got to pay attention because my wife's in the back.'"
Chealander and his wife, Becky, of South Lake, Texas, have been married 36 years and have two daughters, ages 32 and 30, and two grandchildren.
He remembers one particularly harrowing moment early in his career just after he took off from a base in Spain in an F-4 jet. The plane began icing up, and the engines shut down one at a time. His co-pilot was just about to pull a lever to eject them both when Chealander stopped him. Almost instinctively letting his years of training and practice take over, he asked for one more chance to restart the engines.
One engine restarted, and they made it back to base.
That close call hasn't been far from his mind since last week's plane crash. Investigators are looking into ice as a possible cause of the fatal plummet.
Since his own narrow escape, he has frequently reminded the next generation of pilots: "Aviation is hours and hours of boredom interrupted by seconds of sheer terror, and you gotta be ready for the seconds of sheer terror."
Chealander said he was inspired by Capt. Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger, who credited a lifetime of training for giving him the instincts to land his jet in New York's Hudson River in January and save the lives of all 155 people on board.
"Exactly," Chealander said. "So that when those seconds of sheer terror happen, the training comes rushing forward and you keep yourself calm like he did."
But Chealander's professional role has not been tied exclusively to flying.
From early 1986 until January 1989, he carried the so-called "nuclear football" for Reagan. The black bag contains the codes the president needs to order the Pentagon to launch nuclear weapons.
The job requires such a level of security clearance that the investigation of candidates can last a year or longer.
Chealander attributed some of the people skills he's employed the past week in comforting survivors to time he spent with Reagan.
"Who I was changed after I worked for President Reagan," he said. "I was a better person. I was more attuned to other people."
He recalled the president as a grandfather figure who always found time for personal moments.
"He once told me he would have liked to shake hands with every American citizen if he could. He was that much of a people person," Chealander said.
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Copyright 2009 The Associated Press.