Thoughts: Highest Duty: My Search for What Really Matters, by Chesley B. Sullenberger and Jeffrey Zaslow

This is the last non-fiction for a while – 2016 Sneak was really full of Based on True Story films – and it was a nice one to end on. Sullenberger is the pilot who landed that plane in the Hudson, if you will recall. If you’re like me, you may not have immediately appreciated how impressive this was!

The film was a little ehhh – you could tell it was reaching for drama, and the ratcheting up of tension in the post-ditching inquiry scenes might be seen by some as distasteful (I don’t doubt they’re stressful but in the end they do good work and must be thorough) – and I wasn’t expecting much from the book, but it was a pleasant surprise.

Snip for length.

It’s a little bit of a patchwork book, you could say, and at the beginning it drops some ominous hints of how he started the fateful day of US Airways Flight 1549 between stories of his childhood. I can see why, because most people will be picking up this book for the juicy details, but, like the film, it felt a little bit like it was trying to wring some more suspense out of… OK, the ditching itself is a very tense, dramatic event, but Sullenberger’s life around those incredible five minutes (apparently that’s how long the flight lasted! That’s how long he had to make all those decisions!) is quiet and ordinary, and I don’t mean that in a disparaging way at all (I am also very ordinary).

It’s the story of his quiet, unassuming life, his troubles, his determination to do as much good as possible, and the things that shaped him into the person he is. It’s not really the story of the things he did in order to be a pilot who could ditch a plane into the Hudson, ticking things off like a checklist. He could have gone that way – learned responsibility and diligence from his dad and his DIY projects as a boy, check. Saw a wrecked plane at the field of the neighbour who taught him to fly and thus learned the risks of flying, check. Learned to fly gliders and fighter jets, check. Etc. But Sullenberger knows that it’s not so simple, and is at pains to express this: part of it was luck, part of it was the person he is and the person he tries to be, part of it was all that hard work in all different fields, and all the people he’s met.

You can kind of see the interview questions/ghostwriting through the prose. It’s very short, declarative sentences, and unadorned, not as smooth and easy to read/compelling as The Infiltrator, but Sullenberger’s personality shines through. He seems like an absolute gent, who’s always tried to do the best he can in every area of his life, and is intent on using his newfound fame to do even more good.

His honesty is amazing, frankly, when talking about how he might not manage his work-home life balance as best as he could, or what did and didn’t go through his mind in the cockpit on flight 1549. That last one is so personal, and to say that he didn’t think of his parents or his wife or his children, so matter-of-factly, must take a measure of courage, or a devotion to the truth regardless of what other people might think. I would definitely be at least tempted to lie to someone I loved if they asked me if I’d thought of them when I was seconds from possible death and I hadn’t. Sullenberger doesn’t, and his honesty helps people – the story of the woman who had spent years wondering how her father had spent his last minutes in the cockpit of a plane going down in the Everglades, who could finally hear from someone who was in that position tell her what it was like, was extremely moving.

I like life stories in general, the more ordinary the better. I like learning about how people live in different times/places from me, and rural Texas in the 1950s is a pretty different culture. To his credit and my relief, Sullenberger keeps the “kids today” comments to a minimum – life has changed a lot since he grew up, but he manages to avoid the “things were better then” trap. Though there are things that clearly disappoint him, like how people may take air travel a little for granted nowadays, there are things that he’s embraced as well. His relationship with his wife and children seems open and full of communication, which he says he didn’t grow up with himself and which goes a little against his nature, but he makes a lot of effort at it and it seems to be paying off for him and his family. His father suffered from depression through his life, which he kept to himself, and which he might not have had to suffer with alone and unaided in today’s world.

As a non-American reading this book by and (let’s be honest) for Americans, there are always weird little details that stick out that Americans might not notice. Because the US has not much of a railway network for some reason, the ubiquity of domestic air travel is always a bit odd to me. And from an environmental standpoint, it could get complicated for me to try to reconcile the damage of cutbacks and cost-saving at US domestic airlines with the pressing global need to reduce or eliminate air travel as much as possible. I mean, of course penny pinching is very much not the way to do that safely, but still, interesting to wonder how to make these two things fit together.

There was a bit of the emergency response to flight 1549 being what the US stands for, and restoring people’s faith in the values the US holds dear, which is expected. One of the people who reached out to Sullenberger after the incident, however, and whose story sticks with him, is that of the daughter of a Jewish man living in one of the skyscrapers close to where the plane landed. She told Sullenberger the story of her family, in which her father had been allowed to immigrate to the US to escape the Holocaust, but other relatives had not, because of US immigration quotas, and had been murdered in a concentration camp not long after being denied.

The belief that saving a life is equal to saving the world is a beautiful one, and Sullenberger absolutely embodies it through his responsibility, competence and the way he lives his life, but it’s hard to look at that and not think, if saving that man was saving the world, then what is letting his relatives die? If the good stuff is the US, then what is the bad stuff? Their immigration policies haven’t changed at all. People are still sent home to be murdered, those homes are just in different places now.

And I see that there’s value in choosing the things you want to define you as a country. We stand for the good things, not the bad things. But how much weight does that carry when you keep doing the bad things regardless?

I get that this isn’t the point of the book or the story, but still, I think it’s important to think about.

I’m loath to call this a feel-good story because that term comes with a lot of fluffy, distracting baggage, which says “you don’t have to do anything because everything is fine”, and Highest Duty is the story of hard work and Sullenberger’s constant striving to improve himself and the world around him. Flight 1549 wasn’t the end of that work, or the apex of his effort – if it had never happened, he would still be himself, campaigning for air safety and doing his job just as diligently. And he’s clear-eyed about the failings around him as well as his own – the declining standards of airlines battling with the drive for safety, how corner-cutting affects his daily job as well as his and his co-pilot’s abilities during the incident (taking the page tabs out of an emergency manual may save money, but horrifically costs time). He’s not trying to make people feel good at the expense of reality, and that’s something I think we can do with more of right now.

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