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Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Highest Duty: My Search for What Really Matters

The first time I saw a replay of Flight 1549’s landing in the Hudson River I was struck by the combination of skill and good luck that it must have taken to keep the plane from breaking apart on impact or cartwheeling itself into pieces a few seconds later. If one wing had tipped into the water, Flight 1549 would be remembered today for entirely different reasons than those for which it has become so famous. And, now, after reading Highest Duty: My Search for What Really Matters, written by the man who brought the plane down safely, I am certain there was much more skill involved in the landing than there was good luck.

Chesley B. Sullenberger and his crew became heroes to the world on January 15, 2009 – although Sullenberger, the man who became known to the world as “Sully,” takes great pains in Highest Duty to explain why he believes that the word “hero” does not really apply to him. Sullenberger believes that a “hero” must choose to do something heroic, not be thrust into a situation, as he was, that leaves him no choice but to participate in its outcome. This distinction reveals much about Chesley B. Sullenberger.

Sullenberger knew he wanted to fly by the time he was five years old. By sixteen, he had learned basic flying skills from a crop duster neighbor and was logging as many solo hours in the air as he could afford. A few years later, Sullenberger would distinguish himself at the United States Air Force Academy where he would be recognized as the Outstanding Cadet in Airmanship in his graduating class. The man loves to fly and he does it well – as he proved on the day he glided US Airways Flight 1549 to safety on the Hudson.

Highest Duty, though, is about more than Flight 1549. It is about a man who prides himself on doing the right thing when nobody else is looking even more than when he has witnesses. Sullenberger was raised in the little North Texas town of Denison in a home he helped build, and expand, over the years alongside his sister, mother and father. Sullenberger’s father expected everyone in the family to wield a hammer or use a saw competently and he made sure they got plenty of practice. The home might not have looked like the ones Sully’s friends grew up in, but it was “home,” and he could see the pride his father took in having designed and built it with only his family’s help. In the process, the elder Sullenberger taught his son to be his own man and instilled in him an understanding of what is truly important in a man’s life: family, friends, and contentment with one’s place in the world.

The book does not shortchange readers wanting to know exactly what happened after Flight 1549’s harrowing encounter with the flock of large birds that killed both the plane’s engines. Sullenberger makes good use of flight transcripts, recordings, and conversations with crew members and investigators to recreate what happened during the 208 seconds he was able to fly the plane after the bird strike. What he tells about those three minutes is remarkable but, by this point in the book, the reader will know exactly how Chesley B. Sullenberger III ended up in that cockpit, and they will not be surprised that he and his crew were able to pull off this “miracle landing.”

Highest Duty is an interesting and rewarding book, the story of an ordinary man who dedicated his life to becoming so skilled at what he does that he could pull a “miracle” from his hat when he needed it most. He deserves our respect and admiration but I have to believe that he is ready, by now, to return to the level of anonymity he enjoyed on January 14, 2009.

Rated at: 4.0
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