Capt. Sullenberger And The Price Of Hero Worship

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, 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. 


8 thoughts on “Capt. Sullenberger And The Price Of Hero Worship

  1. kelly

    I agree. The captain is clearly a highly skilled pilot, and he should be praised for his work, but not deified. Let’s think critically.

  2. Peter

    Well said. Hero worship is a distraction over the responsibility we all should have to better ourselves. If Sully was a “hero” because he devoted years of inspired and consistent education and practice of his profession, in anonymity and through adversity, all of us should be able to demonstrate those virtues in our own pursuits. Ironically though, it is those who don’t think they’re heroes whom I admire…probably a bit too loftily.

  3. Bob

    While I agree that we should think critically and make continuous improvement to airline safety, I don’t agree with the previous commenters. The pilot absolutely is a hero. Sullenberger did do something extraordinary that day, taking a suddenly & unexpectedly crippled aircraft, over one of the most densely populated areas on earth, and putting it down gently, with no tipping of the wings to cause catastrophic cartwheeling, in a freezing river, intentionally near boats who could rescue the passengers. And doing so while having all of 30 seconds or so to make his decision & execute. With 155 on-board lives at stake and potentially thousands more on the ground.
    If this doesn’t strike you as heroic, what does?

  4. James

    I agree that we should think about the points outlined in this article, and many of us were already doing so. I do not agree that Sully is not a hero. The article seems to suggest that all pilots are trained for events such as this; therefore they are all equally qualified. That’s simply not true. Sully’s dedication to his profession and his commitment to excellence are the reasons he successfully parked the plane in the Hudson. Whether or not he is a hero as a pilot we can debate. His dedication and commitment to his profession and never-ending work on safety in aviation are what warrant hero status. We just didn’t know about it until the incident.

  5. Tom

    This guy IS a hero. Not for the simple reason that he landed an airliner dead stick on the Hudson, and everyone survived – a feat that’s never been done before, as far as I know. He’s a hero because he dedicated his life to the perfection of his craft. Decades spent studying for a situation that lasted three minutes.
    We’re told that all commercial pilots are well trained, all are experienced and dedicated. Yet we know that people are people, and some better than others. Would the outcome have been the same if instead of Sully, we had Joe Pilot, who was just average? I think not.
    Looking at this clinically, it’s clear that the issue is not procedures, policies, or systems, the issue is people. Putting the focus on the person, giving the credit to the individual, is EXACTLY what we should be doing. The FAA didn’t land that plane, nor did Continental Airlines. This was not the success of a policy, or a committee, or a task force. It was one guy, who worked harder than he had to, and did more than he had to, for years.

  6. Jeanne Leblanc

    Thanks for writing. I don’t think we’re in so much disagreement as you imagine. Whether Sullenberger is a hero is, to my mind, mainly a semantic point. Some of his admirers seem to get enraged if you point out that he wasn’t put in a position to display heroics but to display consummate skill. But it’s not important what you call him — he’s clearly a great pilot.
    Anyway, if his skill (or heroics, if you prefer) was the most salient factor in the survival of the passengers, then the policies we need to look at are the ones about attracting, training and retaining pilots like him. You’re not going to get the best pilots you can possibly get if you start off paying them $18,000 a year.
    There’s no reason you can’t both love the guy and learn from what he did.


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