I am as full of admiration as anyone for the way Capt. Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger and his crew ditched US Airways flight 1549 in the Hudson River on Jan. 15, but I have been taken aback by the ferocity of the attendant hero worship.
If we need a hero, and there’s an argument floating about that we do, Capt. Sullenberger certainly is a likely one. He’s a highly skilled pilot who pulled off an extraordinary feat of aviation with a heartwarming ending. He’s good-looking and personable, too.
So why not celebrate the miracle landing by the hero pilot? I can think of a few reasons to look at the event more clinically.
If we view it simply as a miracle performed by a hero, we don’t have to consider the factors that contributed to the survival of all the passengers. We don’t have to think about the way flight crews are trained and compensated, their working conditions and how much rest they get between flights.
We don’t have to consider that Sullenberger. although he has more experience and earns more money than many commercial airline pilots today, has seen his compensation cut year after year. We don’t have to ask ourselves how many thousands of excellent pilots have been laid off or furloughed. We don’t have to think about the regional airline pilots who have quit to make more money as truck drivers.
We don’t have to think about whether we’re paying enough for air travel to keep it safe.
All we have to do is shout “hurray” and wrap the story entirely around the handsome hero pilot, ignoring the role of the rest of the crew and the state of airline safety in general. We don’t have to learn a thing.
And woe to those who take another angle. Patrick Smith, the excellent Ask the Pilot columnist for Salon.com, questioned the “heroism” angle adopted by the media, writing “It was not heroics that saved the day; it was, to use a word I normally dislike, professionalism.” In his subsequent column, he mentioned the angry responses he got from the public (though not other pilots) and went on to describe several challenging landings performed by other flight crews to less acclaim.
To his vast credit, Sullenberger is trying to use the fame and attention he acquired in that dramatic “splash landing” to ask the public to consider those issues and some very troubling questions about the airline industry.
In an interview with Katie Couric, he spoke about the layoffs, the pay cuts and the increased hours in his profession:
“I know some of our pilots, who have been laid off, have chosen not to return,” Sullenberger said. “I can speak personally, for me and my family, that my decision to remain in this profession that I love has come at a cost to me and my family.”
CBS went on to report: “When contracted about Sullenberger’s concerns, the Air Transport Association, which represents the principle U.S. carriers, had no comment.”
I think Capt. Sullenberger would agree that we might want to spend some time thinking about that.