As a boy, Capt. Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger was the nerdy student always reading some book about aviation in school. As a teenager and adult, he learned to fly airplanes, making a career in the military and then in commercial aviation. On January 15, 2009, he was catapulted to fame when he piloted US Airways Flight 1549, which encountered a bird strike that disabled both engines shortly after takeoff. Knowing he was too far from the airport to make it back safely without the engines, Sullenberger landed his plane in the Hudson River and with his skill and the amazing teamwork of the flight crew, saved the lives of everyone on board. Now, he is an aviation consultant for CBS News.
I just finished Sullenberger’s book Highest Duty: My Search for What Really Matters, an autobiography on his experiences leading up to Flight 1549, from being mentored by an acquaintance to flying small Air Force fighter jets as a young man to making a career in US Airways, from growing up in small-town Texas in a house hand-built by his father with the help of his family to adopting his two daughters to his laments on missing out on his family life because of his job. Flight 1549 itself seemed long, yet short; tense, yet amazingly calmly executed.
I truly respect Capt. Sullenberger and the flight crew for what they did to ensure that the unprecedented crisis of Flight 1549 would not turn into tragedy. It is amazing how calm the flight crew and passengers were to ensure that the ditching and rescue operation went successfully—no one pushed and shoved during the evacuation, people helped one another (even giving up their own clothes to other freezing survivors), people in the rafts allowed the people on the wings, in a more precarious position, to be rescued first. Capt. Sullenberger exited the craft only when he was sure everyone made it out and risked his own life in the process, earning him the respect of air accident survivors, politicians, and the general public. The story of Flight 1549 highlighted the best sides of human nature. Unlike in many other news stories, in this one, human compassion blooms like the most beautiful flower and shines like the brightest star in the sky. In a time when there is so much violence, so much twisted politics and games with money, this story conjures up hope in my heart that evil is not overpowering the good in the world.