A Month of Reflection | 5 | Highest Duty: My Search for What Really Matters

by Glenn on November 6, 2018

In some musings earlier this year about the author’s voice on the screen, I wrote, in passing, about the Clint Eastwood film, Sully, based on the book Highest Duty: My Search for What Really Matters, by Captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberg (New York: Harper Collins Publishers, 2009). I decided to listen this book earlier this year when I had a long trip.

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Captain Sullenberg (with some attributed help from Jeffrey Zaslow) did a masterful job of telling his story. This is not a work of literature (it doesn’t pretend to be) and you get the sense that writing a book about his life was pretty far from anything Sully thought he would ever do, but I really enjoyed listening to this.

When something like the safe water landing of US Air Flight 1549 happens, you expect a memoir about it. We like stories about the hero who, against all odds, prevails. Additionally, there was a palpable sense of “we needed this” back then. I didn’t pay attention to the book when it first came out, but decided this would be a good companion to the film.

These types of stories can be a little predictable, i.e. there is a formula you follow: (1) the story opens on the fateful day and leads up to the climactic moment, then (2) we go back in time to tell the author’s life story and how everything led up to this moment, and then (3) we finish with the climactic moment and the aftermath, with an afterword of lessons learned.

This book is crafted a little differently, which I appreciated. For one there is a feint right up front as Sully talks about “a flight you’d never forget,” but it’s not the flight we’re thinking of. It’s his solo flight as a teenager:

“The flight lasted just a few minutes, but so many of the details are rich and vivid to me.

“The wind was coming from the north not the south, which was unusual for that time of year. And my wheels made a distinct rumbling sound as they rolled across the rural Texas airstrip.”

One of the things Sully does in this book is place this one moment of a safe water landing of a passenger plane on the Hudson River which made him famous, in the context of his entire life, which has been about flying:

“A pilot can take off and land thousands of times in his life, and so much of it feel like a speeding blur. But almost always, there is a particular flight that challenges a pilot or teaches or changes him, and every sensory moment of that experience remains in his head forever.

“I have had a few unforgettable flights in my life, and they continue to live in my mind, conjuring up a host of emotions and reasons for reflection. One took me to New York’s Hudson River on a cold January day in 2009. But before that, perhaps the most vivid was the one I’ve just described: my first solo flight, late on a Saturday afternoon at a grass airstrip in Sherman, Texas. It was June 3, 1967, and I was sixteen years old.”

As a military pilot, Sully once had a problem with a plane that ended without incident after an emergency landing. As I recall, this flight makes it into the Eastwood film in a dream sequence.

There is part of Sully that is quite extraordinary—cool under pressure, for sure—but it’s this relentless commitment to being a good pilot that distinguishes him and prepares him for the day that made him famous. For Sully, flying planes wasn’t a job; it was a calling, and he approached that calling with engineer’s brain and an evangelist’s heart. Throughout the book you read about his continual study. I get the sense that his commitment to read extensively and focus on flying is unusual. How many pilots are/were as committed as he is/was to safety to the point of studying crashes to learn what went wrong?

Sully is in a rather exclusive club—he “crashed” a plane on water and everyone walked away from it. I get the feeling he might not have written the book had there been casualties. (Maybe he said as much.)

One of the themes of this book is what happens to a person who orchestrates what is perceived as a miracle? In his mind, he was just doing his job, what needed to be done in the moment, and suddenly national attention fell on him and his family. (This becomes a major theme of the film.)

There is a certain amount of anonymity that comes with being a pilot. Sully assumed we would end his flying career in that kind of anonymity. He would a guy who had been working and now he wasn’t working anymore, but that’s how it is. Now he can’t go anywhere without being recognized. (I don’t think he’s complaining. It’s more of an exploration of the mystery why, when this extraordinary thing happens and his ordinary attention to detail results in a happy result, he is the recipient of so much attention.)

Apparently, airline travel is so safe that over the course of a career, most pilots will never experience any sort of trouble with even one engine. It’s extraordinary, then, that he had a double engine failure. Sully stresses the value of checklists. And here was a weird little thing: Cost-cutting measures at the airline meant that the tabs to help you find pages quickly had been taken out of the books. So it took a little time to find the checklist.

Something that comes through is that he never expected to write a book like this. In the aftermath of 9/11 he had seen his industry struggle. He and his colleagues at US Air had seen pensions cut and benefits reduced, even to having to take his own sandwich on the plane because the airline wouldn’t provide meals. What you don’t hear is bitterness or vitriol. The voice is one of professionalism. And the great impression you have of Sully is how utterly normal and extraordinary he is all at the same time.

He doesn’t offer a lot of pretense and grandiosity about himself. He’s a guy with financial worries, has to work at communication with his wife, struggles to be a family man when so much of his life is spent on the road.

He talks a lot about the volume of mail he’s received. The moving ones were from passengers and their families. But one that gets special mention is from a Holocaust survivor who saw the plane going down and told Sully that when you save a life you save the world entire.

Sully is quick to offer praise to his team. I recall him referring to them routinely as trained professionals. His flight attendants were older because the airline had a hiring freeze at the time. While he was working in the cockpit, he could hear the flight attendants shouting, “Brace, brace, heads down, stay down.”

The most serious injury was to the flight attendant at the rear of the plane. In an interview, I believe just a few weeks after the event, Doreen Welsh is clearly struggling with it all. It wasn’t pleasant in the back of the plane. The tail of the plane hit the water first and when water began filling the back of the cabin, she thought she might die.

For the film, Sully, Clint Eastwood did his homework. So many little pieces about the individual passengers get into the film.

Eastwood does, of course, have to do some modest transformation of the story that Sully tells to make it work on film. An event followed by months of investigation is compressed into a single moment. For example, in the book Sully talks about how in the weeks leading up to the flight, he and his wife were trying to figure out what to do with a piece of commercial property that was vacant and was affecting their bottom line. In the film it becomes part of a phone conversation after the landing. In the film, you are led to believe that the NTSB hearing happened just shortly after the event. In reality, it was months.

I remember watching an episode of Nova called “City in the Sky“. At any one moment, a million people are up in the sky in planes traveling somewhere. It’s a weird thing to think about. What’s remarkable about that is how safe it all is when compared to, say, the more than 30,000 deaths that happen in the U.S. each year from motorcycle accidents.

In interviews, and perhaps in the book but I don’t recall, Sully gives credit to first responders, especially the ferry boat captains who took decisive action. Our technologies make us vulnerable. 155 people in a jet following take-off were nearly taken out by a flock of geese. When technologies break down, it can take many people coming together to save the situation. That was the case here.

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