Some professional pilots are "smart" in the normal sense; some are not. Some are likable and admirable; some are bores or boors. But all of them are made to develop and maintain reflex-like responses to these emergencies. They are also forced to think through the decisions they would make if faced by disasters they will probably never encounter through their whole flying careers.
Why is riding a commercial airliner in the US statistically about the safest way you can spend your time? Partly it's because of the advanced, powerful, and multiply-redundant nature of the machinery, and because of the regulatory standards to which it's held. But the airlines' extraordinarily safe record also says something about the skill, responsibility, and judgment of (most) people flying the craft. As it happens, nearly all flights are routine, and it becomes tempting to think of their crews as glorified bus drivers. But they're conditioned to think, at every stage of every flight, What would I do if XXX went wrong, right now?
And birds? Birds are a much more serious worry for people flying airplanes than you would think, no matter the size of the plane. Obviously it's bad for the bird when it hits a hard metal or composite structure at hundreds of miles an hour. But it's surprisingly bad for the plane too. This detail in a recent NYT story rang true to me: "The impact of a 12 pound bird hitting a plane traveling at 150 miles
per hour is equal to that of a 1,000 pound weight dropped from a height
of 10 feet, according to experts on bird strikes."
Coastal airports are often near water; most airports are surrounded by a lot of grass; the combination means that flocks of birds often assemble where they can do themselves and the airplanes real harm. At an airport in Maryland I once aborted a takeoff in a small propeller plane -- the only time I've had to do so -- because, out of nowhere, dozens of Canada geese suddenly appeared in front of me. It's all too common, when approaching airports near water, to have to concentrate on flocks of seagulls (or crows, even away from water) in hopes that they will, by the very last instant, get out of the way and allow you to land.
And ditching in water? This is something that very few amateur or professional pilots have ever practiced for real.
To deal with an extremely serious problem -- failure of both engines, at least as now reported; to consider various options (on to Teterboro? back to LGA? what about the water?) while the plane is inevitably descending and each passing second narrows your choices; to decide on and commit to a course of action; and then to carry it out flawlessly .. all this deserves admiration, study, and thanks. So, yes, he's a hero. And one of several who emerged that day.
* And not to react in the somewhat grudging spirit of an initial report on the NYT site:
In a few weeks, a close comparison of radar tapes and cockpit
audiotapes will establish where the plane was when that clipped, urgent
conversation took place, and other investigators will try to figure out
why this one plane, flying through some of the world's most congested
airspace, was the only one to report a bird problem. [Perhaps because it was the only one that was hit???] The twin-engine
plane is supposed to be able to fly on one engine. But from early indications, it appears the pilot handled the emergency river landing with aplomb and avoided major injuries.
This story also said, as an aside, "Airliners are not meant to glide, although occasionally they have to." In fact, every airplane is designed to be able to glide, and controlling them in a glide, without power, is something that everyone routinely practices (as part of an "engine-out" drill.)