Highest Duty: My Search for What Really Matters
Chesley Sullenberger grew up in rural Texas just nine miles from Perrin Air Force Base. The sky and the planes that traversed it held unending fascination for a young Chesley, so it’s little wonder that he became a licensed pilot at age 16 and graduated from the Air Force Academy in 1973 as “Outstanding Cadet in Airmanship.” As a commissioned officer, he trained in the Northrop T-38 Talon, the first supersonic jet trainer, and then advanced to the F-4 Phantom II. It was a long, arduous journey from flying a crop duster to mastering a fighter jet, and “Sully,” as he became known, relished every moment.
After completing his military obligation, Sully began flying commercial aircraft. Always the student, he studied the records of crashes and accidents so he could learn from them and better himself as a pilot. Safety was paramount to him.
Sully married, and a few years later, he and his wife Lorrie adopted two infant girls. He loved his job, but it kept him away from home often and caused some stress for the couple. Life was not always easy for Lorrie, who spent a great deal of time as a single parent, or for Sully, who realized he was missing out on so much of his daughters' childhoods.
On a Thursday afternoon in January 2009, Sully, First Officer Jeff Skiles, and three very experienced airline attendants were making what would normally be a routine “day at the office” flight from LaGuardia to Charlotte, North Carolina with 150 passengers on board. In Sully’s words, “Flights are almost always routine, but every time we push back from the gate, we must be prepared for the unexpected.” And the unexpected is just what Flight 1549 got on that cold winter day when a flock of Canada Geese struck the Airbus, and, within seconds, both engines were useless. With 155 people in a huge, critically damaged airplane flying over a heavily populated city, it’s an understatement to say that there was real potential for a major airline disaster to occur.
All his thousands of hours of flight time, his laborious training, his situational awareness, and his ability to quickly process the information at hand gave Sully the capability to execute a risky and quite daring move: attempting to land on/in the frigid and unforgiving waters of the Hudson River. What an amazing feat he and Jeff executed from the cockpit! The flight attendants gave specific instructions to the passengers and helped them to safety --- first out of the plane, then off its wings, and finally onto the ferries and boats that rushed to assist them. You’ll find yourself holding your breath while reading the narration of the flight and how amazingly everyone involved --- from the pilots to the passengers --- performed in this daring mission.
First responders, ferry boat pilots and perfect strangers were at the right place at just the right time to assist in the rescue of the passengers and crew once the plane was in the Hudson. It is a testament to their courage, skills and willingness to be of assistance that helped create the happy ending to what could've been a tragic day. Though hailed a hero by many, Sully disagrees: “Flight 1549 wasn’t just a five-minute journey. My entire life led me safely to that river.”
Reviewed by Carole Turner on May 11, 2010