Grace Under Pressure

January 20th, 2009 by

When a flock of geese flew into two engines of US Airways Flight 1549 last Friday, pilot Chesley Sullenberger was confronted with a set of circumstances he had never seen before. Sure, the flight simulators may have thrown a similar scenario at him, but this was real: he had a plane loaded with 155 passengers and a crew of six. The engines had just failed. He was piloting the plane in one of the most densely populated places on earth. He had to figure out where and how to put the plane down and he had just a few moments to make a decision. That’s pressure in real time.
They’re calling Sullenberger’s actions the “Miracle off 47th Street.” He somehow managed to land the plane in the chilly but not quite frozen Hudson River. The passengers donned their personal flotation devices (which I always thought so ridiculous when demonstrated by the flight attendants before take off) and safely exited the plane. Many huddled on the wings of the floating aircraft (the fuel is lighter than water, thereby helping the plane to float). Nearby boats plucked the passengers off, one at a time. There were minor injuries, but no fatalities. Sullenberger made one last tour of the aircraft, to make sure everyone had gotten off safely, before leaving the plane himself.
We all marvel at the calm skill shown by Sullenberger. One moment he was a pilot among thousands of pilots who do their jobs anonymously every day. The next he is a hero. To this point, Sullenberger had not agreed to perform any interviews. He canceled a scheduled appearance on the Today show. Good for him. This should not be about the public’s relentless appetite for the story behind the story. Ultimately, it is about someone who simply did his job under very trying circumstances. He may not have “expected the unexpected,” but he surely was able to handle it.
Hemingway wrote that “courage is grace under pressure.” Sullenberger has become an instant icon for such courage and grace. I suspect that the passengers on Flight 1549 will say quiet prayer each morning for the rest of their lives, thanking their lucky stars for having Chesley Sullenberger in the cockpit on that fateful day.
Footnote: Perhaps the title of this entry led readers to believe that the Insider was about to pontificate on our about-to-be inaugurated president, Barack Obama, who in his own way has demonstrated, at least on the campaign trail, considerable grace under pressure. We strive for non-partisanship, of course, but in this case we do hope that America’s new leader will perform his onerous duties with Sullenbergeresque efficiency.