Thursday, September 22, 2016

Review of Highest Duty: My Search for What Really Matters by Chesley Sullenberger...

How many times have you gotten on an airplane, tuned out the flight attendants' safety briefing, and just took it for granted that you would make it safely to your destination?  I'm sure I've done it more than once in my lifetime.  I'm sure that many of the people who boarded US Airways' Flight 1549 from New York to Charlotte on January 15th, 2009 also took it for granted that they would be taking a run of the mill flight.  There were 155 passengers and crew on that airplane that day.  How many of them had been lulled into a state of complacency?  How many of them are still complacent seven years after their flight landed in the Hudson River, just minutes after take off?

Like a lot of people, I very well remember reading and hearing about Flight 1549 and its pilot, Chesley B. Sullenberger, affectionately nicknamed Sully, who managed to ditch the aircraft in the river after its engines were overcome by a flock of Canadian geese.  This year, the film Sully is being released, with Tom Hanks playing the title role.  I suppose it was the buzz about Sully that made me decide to download 2009's Highest Duty: My Search for What Really Matters.  Written by Chesley B. Sullenberger and ghost writer Jeffrey Zaslow, Highest Duty is basically Sully's life story in book form.  But it's also the story of what happened on that fateful day in January, when all of Sully's years of flying and thousands of hours of training came down to one moment when he and his co-pilot, Jeff Skiles, had 155 lives in their hands.

Highest Duty begins at the very beginning, as Sullenberger describes growing up in Texas and being fascinated by flight.  He found early inspiration and training in a local crop duster, who taught him the basics of flight and rented him the use of his plane and air strip.  Later, he went on to attend the United States Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colorado, where he was trained to fly bigger airplanes, skills he used as an Air Force officer.  I got a kick out of reading about Sully's training, especially since it turns out he and my dad were stationed in England during the same time.  Sully was at Lakenheath Air Force Base and my dad was at Mildenhall Air Force Base; the two are very close to each other.  Of course, Sully is a lot younger than my dad, so they were not running in the same circles.

After leaving the Air Force, Sully began his career as a commercial pilot.  He writes about how difficult it was, even back before commercial airlines had to contend with the challenges they face today.  There were more pilots than open positions and everything an airline does is based on seniority.  Sully just happened to be at the right place at the right time when he scored his first job.

Like many people, Captain Sullenberger fell in love and got married.  His wife, Lorrie, has been along for the ride, coping with Sully's many trips away from home.  They have two adopted daughters, Kate and Kelly, and live near San Francisco, California, which is where Sully's first job was based.  As airlines began disappearing, swallowed by bankruptcies or mergers, Sully's "home base" changed.  In 2009, he was based out of Charlotte, North Carolina, but still commuted from California.

As he made his way to that fateful flight out of New York, Sully worried about his finances.  I'm sure he never dreamed that he'd one day write books... or be the subject of a major motion picture with Tom Hanks playing him in the starring role.  No... on January 15th, 2009, Sully was thinking about his looming mandatory retirement and the property he owned that had been leased by a Jiffy Lube franchiser.  The franchiser had decided not to renew the lease and Sully wondered how he would pay the mortgage.  Sully's pension had dwindled down to being worth a fraction of what it once was.  And he lived in a very expensive part of the country.  It's a feeling many readers will be able to relate to, even before he gets to the story about his historic landing in the Hudson River.

Those who do decide to read this book may want to know that it's not all about that flight.  In fact, readers are "teased" throughout the book as he mentions the event that put him in the public eye, but writes more about what led up to that moment.  Some readers may find that technique a little tedious and frustrating.  I know I picked up Sully's book because I wanted to read about how he ditched the airplane in the river, but I now appreciate reading about how Sullenberger became the man and the pilot he is.  Aside from that, he has spent so many years in the airline business that he offers some interesting trivia about it.  In fact, he even laments how sad he thinks it is that so few children are interested in seeing the cockpit anymore.  Nowadays, kids are plugged into any number of devices.  It doesn't occur to them to want to stop in and see where Sully works.  He mentions that a lot of people seem to think pilots are not much better than glorified bus drivers.

Anyway... I pretty much hate flying in airplanes and try to avoid them when I can.  But I can definitely appreciate a book about how the airline industry works, especially when it's written by a man who could be credited with keeping so many people safe when they could have been so easily killed.  Think about it.  It's a miracle that 155 people were able to go home to their families after Sully ditched their airplane in an ice cold river.  Through his talented ghost writer, Sully even describes how it felt to receive his personal effects months later, after they were found by the company contracted to take care of that.  He muses that most people who receive personal personal effects after a plane crash are the people who have survived the crash victims.  But there he was, receiving a box of his stuff that happened to be on the plane.  Everything was there, save for an $8 tuna sandwich he purchased and never had the chance to eat.  And he was the one to take possession of that stuff, not his wife and children.  It's amazing.

I think Highest Duty is well worth reading.  I give it a solid four stars.



  1. The movie, from all reports, seems to be a case study of how movie-makers often change facts to make a "true story" plot more of a box office draw. I haven't seen "Sully" yet, but a review here in a Tampa newspaper says director Clint Eastwood makes the routine NTSB crash investigation into a heroic-Everyman-vs.-overzealous-government bureaucrats melodrama. Here, Sully is not only the excellent pilot who pulled off the "miracle on the Hudson" crash landing, but a victim of a government witch hunt.

    1. Maybe it's better to just read the book, then.

    2. Abso-damn-lutely.

      I've been watching movies since I was a wee lad. I have also been reviewing them, on and off, since I was 17. I know that screenwriters and directors often tweak reality when they are dramatizing a true story; movies need drama, and more often this means "conflict."

      In the real incident, the only "conflict" involved the flock of Canadian geese and Captain Sullenberger's jet plane. It was just one of those instances in which a man-made object and birds happened to be sharing the same piece of sky and they - disastrously - interacted. Sully did what he was trained to do - land the plane safely and get his passengers ashore - and that was that.

      What "Sully" tries to do is to paint the NTSB investigators as villains to add dramatic tension to the story. This will probably please the limited government folks in the ultra-conservative wing of the GOP, but it doesn't reflect reality.

  2. I will read the book. I'll eventually see the movie as well, though I don't know if it will happen before the movie is available on Netflix. I don't spend that much time in theaters and am too ADHD to sit through the typical movie in a theater, although tho luxury theatres with recliners are becoming almost the norm now, so it's possible I will actually go to a theater to see it.

    I want to read the book first. I want, when I think of the story, to picture the real Sully and not the image of Tom Hanks. I like Tom Hanks as much as I like any other actor I don't personally know, which is 99.99999999999 % of them, but Sully is enough of the real thing when one conjures the image of a hero that I want his actual face to be in my mind if and when I recall this story.

    I don't have a lot of heroes because, in the end, heroes are still mere mortals, and if one builds another person up too much, he or she cannot live up to those expectations, and one is inevitably disappointed. For that reason, I have almost no celebrity heroes, but Sully is one, and barring anything short of his going into a shopping mall and shooting into a crowd, killing or wounding tens or hundreds of people, he will remain my hero. Perhaps what he did was nothing more than anything a person competent at his or her job who is in the right place at the right time would do, but these days, it seems even THAT is all too uncommon.

    I understand that military personnel are often shared between the respective branches and that one may be stationed at a facility that is not operated by his or her actual assigned branch per se, but please refresh my memory: was your dad Army or Air Force?

    1. P.S. We get REAL lunch breaks at this medical practice. In some ways I wish I could stay here for the entire remaining of my training.

    2. My dad was in the Air Force.

    3. My Grandpa and my uncles were in the Air Force, too.


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