So the cockpit tapes of the US Airways flight have come out, and the media renews its swoon over the calm, cool behavior of Captain Chesley B. Sullenberger as he landed his airplane in the Hudson River.
Let me start by saying that my intent is in no way to criticize the pilot. He obviously did nothing worthy of criticism, and he should indeed be praised — just not to this degree — and I suspect that he is more than a little bemused and even embarrassed over the attention, which would be in keeping with the character that he has demonstrated so far.
My criticism is of the media in its ongoing coverage of a man who — when it comes down to it — just did his job. And in their drooling adulation of him, they actually slander the thousands of pilots who, like Sully, do their jobs every day.
So what is a hero? To me, it’s someone who takes personal risks and perhaps even willingly sacrifices himself for others. While I think that Sullenberger did his job in an exemplary manner, there is a distinct difference between what he did before the plane came to rest in the river, and after. When he realized that his airplane was in trouble he had two choices: land the airplane safely or die. While Sullenberger had a responsibility as a pilot to save his passengers and people on the ground, he also knew that if he didn’t land the plane safely, he — being in the front of the aircraft — would be the first to die. This is as it should be, because people wouldn’t get on a plane if they thought that the pilot had less of a stake than them in flight safety. So clearly, it was in his own self-interest to land that airplane as gently as possible. However, once he did land he could have chosen to have been one of the first to evacuate, but instead, he stayed aboard and made sure that all of his passengers were safe. That is where the heroism comes in.
Nonetheless, Sullenberger was still doing what he was trained to do, and what his employers expected him of him. It would be nice to think that because he was a steely-eyed airplane man, only he could have landed that airplane safely and smoothly in the river. But it’s not true. I’ll bet that every other US Airways pilot thought to himself, “Good job, Sully, you did just what I would do.” And not just the US Airways pilots, but every commercial pilot. And the vast majority of them would be right.
Pilots don’t like to think that luck rules their lives, but Sullenberger was lucky, in the sense that he had a place to set his airplane down relatively smoothly and safely after his engine failures. If the failure had occurred at a slightly lower altitude, he probably wouldn’t have had the option of the Hudson River. His options might have been to hit an office building or a vacant lot (which may been a sandlot with kids playing ice hockey, and he might not have had time to discern that). But it’s very dangerous to think that as long as people have — as novelist Tom Wolfe noted — “the right stuff,” that all will be well, because sometimes things happen that are beyond the capability of even the best pilot. And while it sounds nice to say that “failure is not an option,” the reality is that if the oxygen tank on Apollo XIII had exploded on the way back from the moon, the crew would have died, and there was nothing that anyone in Houston could have done about it. Sometimes it’s just not enough to be a hero. And when failure is not an option, success gets pretty damned expensive, which is one of the reasons that space, as executed by NASA, remains unaffordable.
But why does the press compare Sully to Lindbergh and Yeager, when the former was just doing his job, and the latter were taking deliberate risks to expand the envelope of flight? I think it’s because the public isn’t necessarily looking for heroes.They’re desperate to just find people who will at least do their job with integrity, as Captain Sullenberger did. When the public confidence in our future is currently at an all-time low; when our so-called leaders in Washington and New York have shown themselves to be utterly incompetent and greedy, to find a man who prominently does his job, saving hundreds of people, is a rare shining beacon, a rock of integrity in a sea of corruption, and it suddenly becomes newsworthy. But when you salute Captain Sullenberger, think about the millions of other Americans who, despite the rot at the top of the system, continue to do their jobs just like him — if less conspicuously — and provide the promise of ultimate recovery.