There is a genre of aviation writing, typified by Antoine St. Exupery, Ernest K. Gann, Richard Bach and Rinker Buck that focuses on the link between the machine and the person flying it. These pilots write not just about the sky around them but the space within. Chesley Sullenberger’s fine memoir, Highest Duty, My Search for What Really Matters, joins this group.
In the year months since he brought crippled US Airways Flight 1549 safely down in the Hudson River, Chesley Sullenberger has become the face of modern aviation. But it is doubtful he would ever have put pen to paper had fame not been cast upon him. Behind the crisp navy suit and gold braid, pilots live uneventful lives. Until they don’t.
Before the afternoon of January 15, 2009 Sullenberger worked in an industry in distress and worried about his investments. He quibbled with his wife and was apprehensive about a growing distance between himself and his teenage daughters. A typical week might have him traveling in the middle seat on a cross-country flight commuting from his home near San Francisco to his assigned base at US Airways in Charlotte.
But the life Sullenberger describes also includes an uncommon and longstanding interest in the underpinning of aviation: safety. From his first look at an airplane accident, as a 16-year old flying student at a grass strip in Denison, Texas, Sullenberger recognized the unforgiving nature of flying. This impression was reinforced in the Air Force as a member of the Mishap Investigation Board. When he became an airline pilot he participated in his union’s air safety committee and on the day he flew out of obscurity, Capt. Sullenberger had a safety book packed in his trip bag. Conscientiousness then is the quality that makes Sullenberger more than ordinary.
Airplane accidents are investigated so they can be prevented in the future. Sullenberger’s self-analysis is the flip side of that. Studying the factors contributing to good piloting can teach success. There’s no question what those factors are according to Sullenberger; preparation, anticipation and attention to the flight, leadership, responsibility and discipline in dealing with people.
Sullenberger claims the title “good pilot,” explaining that the lessons he learned in a lifetime of flying came into play that day. “Having the details of that knowledge in the recesses of my brain was helpful in making those quick decisions on Flight 1549,” he writes. But he rejects the title “hero” with a tart reply in contrast to thousands of syrupy media portrayals.
Anyone at the controls of Flight 1549 probably could have written a book about the event. But Capt. Sullenberger has given us much more than that. Certainly, co-author Jeffrey Zaslow should be given some credit. His previous books (The Last Lecture, The Girls from Ames) have demonstrated his skill at making private introspection publicaly relevant.
Together they have written a book that elevates one man and one event into a thought-provoking examination of what it means to do one’s best.