Press and public are all agog about Chesley B. Sullenberger III, the pilot who so adroitly set that crippled airliner down in the Hudson River, Friday afternoon.
And rightly so.
But there is something slightly disconcerting about our adulation, our branding him a “national hero.” Even allowing for our insatiable thirst for “real” heroes, there seems to be an aura of amazement around this event that should be tempered with some perspective.
Mr. Sullenberger is an exceptional man, to be sure. But we expect him to be exceptional.
Indeed we expect all the men and women who sit in the cockpits of our airliners to be exceptional. Many of them are products of the most demanding flight school in the world, the U.S. military. And even then, we select them, we screen them, we train them, we monitor their performance, and we count on them to keep their “edge” through thousands of hours and millions of miles of routine “bus driving.”
As it is, these men and women are one of the hidden wonders of our civilization. Thousands of us daily place our lives in their hands with hardly a thought. And as the billions of air travel miles pile up without incident we think less and less about them.
Everyone of them has thought at one time or another about what they would do, how they would react when the buzzers sound and the lights flash and hell breaks loose above the earth. Most of them never have and never will face what Chesley Sullenberger faced — that moment when all his training, all his reading, all his instincts — all that framed and formed him since his youth — was called up instantly from the files hidden deep within him.
It is likely that we would never have heard about Mr. Sullenberger, but for that flock of birds near La Guardia. He would have been like thousands of other commercial pilots — exceptional men and women who go about their demanding, boring, tiring, unsung duty, hoping and indeed praying that what makes them exceptional will not be called to the fore. Most of them have memories of cockpit moments when their instincts, their training, and luck, yes, luck, got them past the shadow of death. These are the damp-brow, dry-mouth, frozen seconds they keep to themselves.
Make no mistake, Mr. Sullenberger deserves every accolade. But I imagine that when we are able to hear from him we will hear the words of a man who was doing what his profession demands of him. The word “hero” doesn’t appear in his job description but its most exquisite definition is implied in every paragraph. Chesley Sullenberger did his job. Now tell me, do you think airline pilots are paid too much?
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