Saturday, January 24, 2009

Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger

Like most people that I have talked to, I was quite taken by the story of flight 1549 when it occured.  The more I read and learned, however, the more I realized that what happened in New York was a true miracle, and the captain of that plane is a true hero.

He recently spoke to a crowd in his hometown.  His speech lasted about 30 seconds, and basically he said, "we were only doing what we were trained to do.", Mr. Sullenberger, millions of people every day go out and do what they were trained to do in jobs all around the world, and any pilot in your situation would have done the best they could to land the plane safely.  That doesn't make a hero; but what you did goes beyond training.  The technical skill of being able to harness enough control of a failed aircraft hurtling toward ground over a heavily populated city can be taught, though I wonder if many other pilots could have landed so successfully with so little time.  What sets you apart, sir, is that you took no thought for yourself, but instead did all within your power to make sure that every person on that plane made it out safely, and they did.  We always hear of the proverbial captain ready to go down with the ship.  You made that proverb a reality.  The combination of expertise, quick thinking, and selfless generosity that you displayed is not something that anybody can be trained to do.

You may look at this situation and think that you were only doing what you were trained to do, and wonder why you are being hailed as such a hero.  After all, it was just one event - five minutes of your life.

But it is not those few minutes that makes you a hero.  It is the years and decades that came before and that shaped you, and made you a man willing to give his all for others; a man who is genuinely surprised when his actions earn him such accolades; a man who thinks that everybody else would have done the same thing because being willing to sacrifice for others is the only thing he can think of - that is what makes you a hero.

I'm sure you have your heroes that you look up to for their great deeds.  Perhaps, like me, you watch superhero movies and wish that you could foil the supervillain or stop the bomb from exploding or divert the asteroid heading for earth.  Most of us will never get the opportunity to be tested in so dramatic a fashion.  Each day we clock in to our daily routine and do what we are trained to do.  When the whistle blows we head home and get ready for the next day's routine.  We do what we are trained to do, but we long for the greener grass that is just beyond our reach where we can stretch ourselves and make a real difference.  We long for it, but we go back to the routine, because our dreams are the stuff of fairy tales and hollywood movies, not our boring lives.

That fateful thursday morning, you were just another face in the crowd as you walked through the airport and punched the clock on the wall.  Yes, you had those shiny gold wings on your chest, but they were no shinier than the day before.  Indeed, this was just another day for you to show up and do what you were trained to do.  Fortunately for 155 people on that plane and millions of Americans watching the news, your training went beyond what you learned in the classroom and on safety training day.  You showed us that every day that we clock in for work, we can do it with a mindset to do the most good, that we can sacrifice what we might want for what is best for others.

Mr. Sullenberger, when I think of the Captain who calmly turns on his best skills to make a nearly impossible landing, and to make such a landing so smoothly that a flight attendant thought that it was a runway landing, I am impressed.  When I think of a man who makes such a difficult landing because the easier route would have risked a crash in a populated neighborhood, I am touched.  When I think of a man who sees his plane filling up with water, but walks the cabin twice to be sure that everybody made it out safely before he thinks of getting himself out, I get tears in my eyes.

Please do not be surprised as letters and cards and prayers of gratitude come pouring in.  They are not just thanks for 5 minutes of calm leadership; they are thanks for a lifetime of service that lead up to one of the best examples of emergency leadership of our time.

Thank you Chesley Sullenberger.

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