Beginning and Ending with a Hero

The hero quest is perhaps outrivaled only by the quest for heroes. Among the many stories that resonated on the Web in 2009, heroes ranged from the first black president to tea party patriots, from the jockey who rode in two historic horse races to the female policewomen who helped bring Jaycee Dugard home after 18 years.

But the one whose story has persisted throughout 2009 was the tale the Hudson River miracle. Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger was made for worst-case scenarios. The US Airways pilot flew F-40 fighter jets in the ’70s, investigated aircraft accidents, and studied the psychology of how to keep airline crews alert during the worst of circumstances.

And those circumstances came on January 15, when Flight 1549 took off from LaGuardia Airport. Within seconds of take-off, a migratory flock of Canadian geese rammed into the Airbus A320 and killed both engines. The plane had to be ditched, but it took less than two minutes for Sullenberger to reject LaGuardia airport. It would have to be the Hudson River.

The impact on the icy ripped away 6,000-pound engine ripped away. All 155 onboard survived. Time since take-off: five minutes.

With seeming economic collapse on the horizon, two intractable wars, and a change in leadership five days away and, America had been on the lookout for miracles. The nation didn’t quite expect one literally to fall from the sky, but the “Miracle on Hudson” showed that change might indeed be in the air.

The cautious, soft-spoken pilot rose to elite status online, received an invite to the presidential inauguration, keys to multiple cities, and a seated ovation when he returned to the cockpit 9 months later. Web searches and Facebook fan pages notwithstanding, heralding Sully was on many ways honoring the bygone days of pilots as kings and the grand romance of air travel. While air safety has never been better, the tragic Feb. 12 Colgan Air crash reminded people—as did subsequent hearings in both accidents—that the cost-cutting approach was squeezing out Sullenberger’s kind. After all, Sully started his consulting business into air safety because his pay and pension had been cut—testimony that Michael Moore repeated in his latest documentary.

Air safety reform efforts (triggered by the Colgan Air crash) may be stalled, the Sully adoration has not, as he carried his message of professionalism on the lecture circuit and in his biography. Coming to TLC on January 10, 2010, in advance of the anniversary, a documentary will recount the historic save.

It’s no suprise to see that this well-spoken pilot understands timing. As he said in an NPR interview, the rescue “happened at a time in the world’s history when people needed good news. They were searching for reasons to feel hopeful again, and they wanted to be reassured that people could be competent and that good could be done.”

One thing Sullenberger shouldn’t be surprised about: how the story has stuck around. In that same interview, he observes, “One of the biggest surprises for us on the crew early on was that we assumed that this story would just run its course, the news cycle would be complete and after a few days or weeks, people would be on to the next thing. And that simply hasn’t happened.”

Then again, he has his heroism partly to blame: his Congressional testimony, book, and media appearances all show his determination to take that message of airline safety. Fame for Sullenberger may have been sudden, but it had been a long time coming.