- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 25, 2009

By Capt. Chesley “SullySullenberger, with Jeffrey Zaslow
William Morrow, $25.99, 340 pages, illus.

That whole miraculous U.S. Airways Flight 1549 — from takeoff at LaGuardia to splashdown in the Hudson River on Jan. 15 — took exactly five minutes and eight seconds. The rescue of all 155 aboard by 14 nearby boats began within four minutes. This “as told to” book has been rushed into print in a somewhat breathless disorder, yet Capt. Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger’s all-American life story is so compelling that it screams to be required reading for all young people, or anybody else who needs confirmation that courage, dignity and extraordinary competence can still be found in this land.

Capt. Sullenberger is a member of a diminishing fraternity — exceptionally well trained former Air Force pilots who fly our commercial aircraft with dedication to that “highest duty,” safety. As he says, “The plane will not move until we feel we can operate the aircraft safely.… With authority comes great responsibility.… It’s a heavy professional burden on the captain to know he may be called upon to tap into the depths of his experience, the breadth of his knowledge, and his ability to think quickly, weighing everything he knows while accounting for what he cannot know.” Obviously, Capt. Sullenberger called on all those qualities and more when his Airbus A320 ran into the flock of Canada geese that destroyed both engines simultaneously.

Young Sully was a thoughtful, serious child who grew up in rural Texas, outside Denison, in a family that required all its members to wield a hammer to expand their self-built home. His father was a dentist who was both impulsive (he liked to take Sully and his sister out of school for a day’s outing in Dallas) and depressive (eventually committing suicide after a serious illness at age 78). His mother was a first-grade schoolteacher, known to and beloved by everybody in town. As a 13-year-old, Sully was appalled by sensational news accounts of the apparent indifference of bystanders to the rape and murder of Kitty Genovese in New York City, and he pledged that, were he ever to witness such an event, he would intervene.

Capt. Sullenberger says that he knew from age five that he wanted to be a pilot, and at age 16 he got his license after a few lessons from a hometown instructor. He thrived at the U.S. Air Force Academy from the first, despite the hazing (typical of his own sensitivity and good sense, he notes that when it came his turn to quiz freshmen during meals, he “asked questions about flying, as opposed to barking out demands for mindless memorization”). After graduating in 1973 with the Academy’s award of Outstanding Cadet in Airmanship, he earned a master-of-science degree in industrial psychology at Purdue, a “discipline focused on designing machines that take into account human abilities as well as human limitations.”

The Air Force sent him for pilot training first in Missouri and then in New Mexico, where he was one of two out of 35 trainees selected to fly jet fighters. After some months spent mastering the F-4 Phantom, he was stationed in England and subsequently at Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada. He notes that pilots “were reminded again and again how vital it was to know about the dangers of complacency, to have as much knowledge as possible about the particular plane you were flying, to be aware of every aspect of what you were doing.”

He made a practice of trying to learn all he could about every accident. “Whenever a fellow airman lost his life during my military career, I tried to think of how I might have reacted, and what steps I might have taken. Could I have survived?” He took a particular interest in why some pilots waited too long before ejecting from a crashing airplane, and learned from those who had close calls that they had hesitated to eject because they didn’t want to be responsible for the loss of a $4 million aircraft.

After fulfilling his service commitment, Capt. Sullenberger decided to leave the Air Force because he had learned that “To keep getting promoted, I’d have to choose a career path that took me further away from flying you had to be a good politician.” Capt. Sullenberger started at Pacific Southwest Airlines in 1980 as a second officer/flight engineer on a Boeing 727, grossing less than $200 per week. At the time of his January 2009 U.S. Airways “incident,” he had, over his 29 years as a professional airline pilot, carried about a million passengers, all of whom he had landed safely.

He reports that he has chafed over the changes in flying in recent years, including the captain’s diminished pay and perks: meals are no longer provided, and rarely can family members take advantage of the free-flight privilege of yesteryearin fact, the pilot himself has to make do with a middle seat on his cross-country commute from home in California to his airline’s base in Charlotte. The captain’s power, too, has been trimmed, as reflected in his account of instances in which company agents threatened him with suspension for insisting that standby passengers be allowed to fill two empty seats remaining on his flights, thereby forfeiting on-time departures.

The book fully covers every moment of that incredible five-minute flight and its aftermath in which he has been hailed as a hero, an accolade he resists. It also delves into the captain’s apparently exemplary personal life: his devotion to his wife, who has coped admirably with absences required by the job he loves by starting her own outdoor counseling/exercise enterprise for women; the couple’s early struggles with infertility; and their eventual adoption of two picture-perfect daughters who have raised Labrador puppies for a guide dog program. They all seem to have handled his sudden fame with grace, and as far as this reviewer is concerned, Capt. Sullenberger is a Hero. Let’s hope that his remarkable life story sells in the millions and earns him so much that he never again has to worry about his poor real estate investment, nor to ride cross-country in that middle seat.

Priscilla S. Taylor is a writer in McLean.

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