Highest Duty by Capt. Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger

February 18, 2010

Summary: On January 15, 2009 U.S. Airways Flight 1549 ran into a flock of Canadian geese shortly after takeoff from LaGuardia. The craft lost both engines, and the pilot, Capt. Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger, quickly determined that there simply wasn’t enough time to guide it back to LaGuardia or to Teterboro, another nearby airport in New Jersey. Within three short minutes of hitting the birds, Sully brought the Airbus A320 down safely on the Hudson. Commuter ferries and other boats soon arrived on the scene to help evacuate passengers, and incredibly, all 155 aboard survived. The most serious injury was to one of the flight attendants who gashed her leg on an exposed piece of metal. Sully himself emerged with little more damage than wet clothes and dark circles under his eyes from the stress and strain.

In Highest Duty: My Search for What Really Matters, Capt. Sullenberger gives readers insight into his life and shows how it was absolutely due to skill and preparation (rather than luck) that he was able to react so quickly and calmly during that mid-flight catastrophe. Sully recounts how his love of flying began at a very early age, how he obtained his pilot’s license as a teenager, and how he went on to the Air Force Academy where he developed the flying techniques and discipline that would serve him so well later in life.

Readers also get a glimpse at Sully’s private side in the chapters where he talks about his wife Lorrie and the adoption of his two daughters Kate and Kelly. The Sullenbergers face the same challenges and financial struggles as other middle-class families, and of course have to deal with Sully being gone four days per week. Plus, their lives were completely altered after the Hudson landing — but mostly for the better.

Sully also talks a bit about the inner workings of the airline industry. Frankly, what he had to say doesn’t inspire me with a whole lot of confidence for the next time I have to fly. With pilot salaries being slashed by 40 percent or more, their pensions being terminated, and qualification standards being lowered, you really have to wonder if the next pilot to face a similar problem as Flight 1549 encountered will have the training and skills to orchestrate another happy ending.

Liked:

  • Sully seems like a genuinely humble person who is using his new-found fame and celebrity for good causes. I’m glad he has been interested in airline safety for a long, long time and that he’s using his experiences from Flight 1549 to help the FAA institute new safety standards.
  • The detailed account of what went on during the three crucial minutes of the Flight 1549 incident was positively gripping. I had no idea that the whole thing took just three minutes — I thought it was a bit longer than that. I simply cannot believe that the pilots were able to react and make decisions that quickly.
  • How fortunate everyone was that Capt. Sullenberger is such a conscientious pilot. Are all pilots like him? Doubtful. We hear reports of pilots being drunk while on duty or doing god-knows-what that causes them to overshoot their destination by more than 150 miles (ahem, Northwest pilots), so it makes you wonder how things might have turned out with someone else at the controls. I know a lot of people have downplayed Sully’s actions, saying, “Well, that’s what pilots are trained to do.” Yeah, right. Water landings are notoriously difficult, so please don’t act like this was another day at the office.
  • I’m glad that Sully has enjoyed/is enjoying the nice accolades and perks he got as the result of bringing Flight 1549 in safely. He has received phone calls from presidents, attended Obama’s inaugural ball, thrown out the first pitch at three MLB games, was honored at the Super Bowl, gave the commencement speech at his high school alma mater, and appeared on numerous talk shows.
  • Sully is always quick to point out that first officer Jeff Skiles and flight attendants Donna Dent, Doreen Welsh, and Sheila Dail all performed admirably during the incident, so I feel compelled to give them props here as well.

Disliked:

  • Well, unfortunately, since Sully was pretty much just an average guy before the accident, some of the things in this memoir weren’t all that interesting. I know he probably had to fill a minimum number of pages for this memoir, but I felt the book would have been better without some of the family anecdotes. Those parts made the story stall (sorry, bad pun) right in the middle and made it a bit difficult to complete the book.

Rating:

Although the passages detailing what happened during U.S. Airways Flight 1549 were undeniably tense and gripping, there were too many slow sections for my taste in Highest Duty by Capt. Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger. The book is still worth the read for the captain’s account of the action, but don’t expect a page-turner from beginning to end. I give this one 3 stars out of 5.

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