Action heroes and their times

Tom Allen on the heroic Hudson River pilot and his times.

It's almost a month since Capt. Chesley (Sully) Sullenberger saved 155 lives, including his own, by landing a disabled Airbus 320 on the Hudson River right beside Manhattan.

Since then, he's been on 60 Minutes and was presented, along with four other crewmembers, with the keys to New York City by Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

Chesley (Sully) Sullenberger III, pilot of U.S. Airways Flight 1549 that crashed into the Hudson River on Jan. 15, 2009, shown here on a CBS show. (Jason DeCrow/Associated Press)

There have also been calls on the conservative forum Free Republic for a burger chain to offer a special Flight 1549 combo featuring the Sullen Burger, served cool, along with an action figure of the hero pilot thrown in as a prize.

It's a great tale on its own but it also came along at the right time: just a few months into the recession that seems to know no bottom.

As a result, the story of the bird-stricken Flight 1549 is still gathering momentum.

Adding fuel was this week's release by the Federal Aviation Administration of the audio of what went on between Sullenberger and an unnamed air traffic controller at the New York TRACON facility on Long Island.

The recording lasted all of two minutes, but carried a powerful little drama all its own.

Move over John Wayne

In the tape, Sullenberger says only what's necessary, even when delivering the message that the plane is "probably going to be in the Hudson."

When the controller comes back, asking him to clarify that message, he doesn't. He's on to more important things, like clearing the George Washington Bridge, hitting the water as slowly as possible (but not slowly enough to stall), keeping the wings exactly level and the nose slightly raised, and landing close enough to harbour traffic (but not close enough to hit anyone) so that help would be close at hand.

All of that in a plane with engines full of roasted Canadian geese that he could smell in the cockpit and nothing but its own momentum to keep it going.

Also remarkable was the conversation between the TRACON air controller and his counterpart at Teterboro airport in New Jersey, which for a while seemed like the best place for the Airbus to land.

Teterboro was Sullenberger's suggestion, at 3:28:50 p.m. Fifty-six words and 29 seconds later, at 3:29:19, it's arranged, with support at the ready in Teterboro.

There's no alarm in either man's voice. It's as if the Teterboro operator was waiting for him to call.

No place for hubris

There have been other calamities, of course, that have captured the story of their time and, happy ending or not, they remain cherished pieces of oral history.

The sinking of the Titanic in 1912 was Nature's (or God's, depending on your theology) cruel reminder that the Industrial Revolution had not, after all, given man invincibility and supremacy over all. The four years of horror and death that quickly followed on the battlefields of Europe drove the point further home.

The spectacular 1937 conflagration of the Hindenburg as it docked in Lakehurst, New Jersey, killed 26 people, put a gaping hole in the public face of an increasingly mighty Nazi Germany and consumed 200,000 cubic metres of hydrogen and 245 metres of airship, all in just 34 seconds.

That's just four seconds longer than it took to find Captain Sullenberger an alternative runway.

Dangerous metaphors

Like the Titanic and the Hindenburg, the story of Flight 1549 is a metaphor for its time. A prosperous nation going about its daily work is struck by sudden loss of power and faces a murderous fall. Then, calmly and evenly, guided by an inspirational leader and with everyone pitching in, it lands safely and life as we know it is saved for another day.

Barack Obama did not have anything to do with what happened over and beside New York City on Jan. 15. But the events of the day fit the story he's trying to tell and the one his nation dearly wants to hear: cautious optimism, attention and commitment, and all ends well.

There's another aviation story that stands as a metaphor for its time. But with that one, a new president was all over it.

In August of 1981, just seven months into his term, Ronald Reagan faced an illegal strike by PATCO, the air traffic controllers' union. The union was demanding better working conditions, better pay and a shorter workweek.

Reagan gave PATCO's 13,000-odd controllers 48 hours to return to work. Fifteen hundred did and after two days, Reagan fired the rest — 11,359 people, all banned from the profession for the rest of their days.

No kidding

The firing announced the economic priorities of the era, dramatically cut the power and position of public sector unions and showed the world at large that Reagan wasn't kidding.

Many observers have pointed to the destruction of PATCO as the strategic blow of the Cold War, showing the old Soviet Union the strength of Reagan's resolve and paving the way for the collapse of the Eastern Bloc just eight years later.

On the other hand, others credit this move with bringing in the same economic values, or lack of values, that produced financial deregulation and profit-at-all-cost banking — the underpinnings of the crisis we all face today.

It is even possible that the TRACON controller who helped guide Sully's plane is one of the 850 former PATCO workers who were rehired after Bill Clinton lifted the ban, 13 years later.

Highly unlikely, it's true, but a story that becomes a metaphor for its time can always use an ironic twist to help it stay in the air a little longer: the brilliant, calm-under-pressure leader, helped along by the once-scorned worker, uniting labour and management, ideal and action, policy and reality, and so on.

Let's just hope that when Sully Sullenberger gets his moment of recognition with President Obama, as no doubt he will, that Obama takes notes and maybe even keeps an emergency contact number, both for the pilot and the controller, in case he finds himself losing power, looking down and seeing nowhere to land.


  • The Hindenburg was inflated with hydrogen, not helium as originally stated in this column.
    Feb 12, 2009 9:50 PM ET