If You Can Keep Your Head

I have always been fascinated by the flying genius deftly displayed by Capt. Chesley Sullenberger at New York’s Hudson River on January 15, 2009. You can imagine my delight when I learned that his heroic act as celebrated in his  memoir entitled Highest Duty – My Search for What Really Matters would be turned into a movie. More so when I read that no less than Clint Eastwood would direct the film that would topbill Tom Hanks as Capt. Sully. For months, I looked forward to finding out how these two world-class talents would transform a 315-paged autobiography into a 120-minute film.  And so when we read about Sully opening in our city, we wasted no time catching it on Imax.

Here are 5 takeaways that made us even bigger fans of Sully, and, by implication, Eastwood and Hanks.

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Sense of Purpose

Both in the book and in the film adaptation of the latter, Sully consistently refused to refer to himself as a hero, choosing instead to share the credit with his co-pilot and crew.  As far as Sully was concerned, he was simply a professional aviator who got the job done out of a strong sense of purpose.  To be sure, this strong sense of purpose did not grow in a vacuum.  In the film, Eastwood points us to three compelling elements in Sully’s life that proved pivotal in this regard –  his love of flying during his growing up years, his military aviation training and his wife and kids.  The book though takes us even farther, specifically, to how he was formed and raised by his dad who served in the military and his mom who was a grade school teacher. Both did a fine  job of forming his strong sense of purpose  in words and deeds.  “When we’re not around, we’re counting on you” my mom would tell me. My dad would say, “You’re in charge.” (p. 63.) Being a military man, Sully’s father “impressed upon me that a commander’s job is full of challenges, and his responsibilities are almost a sacred duty. I kept my father’s words with me during my own military career, and, after that, when I became an airline pilot, with hundreds of passengers in my care.” (p. 57.)    And so it was that despite the fact that Sully lived in an age when being a  commercial pilot is no longer as glamorous and as high-paying as it used to be in the old days,  his sense of purpose – to care for both his passengers and crew come rain or come shine – was as undiminished in 2009 as it was when he first flew with his instructor Mr. Cook in 1967.  That the movie was screened during the week celebrating Good Shepherd Sunday all the more amplifies his characteristic  insistence to always  be the first to lead and the last to leave, always choosing to put his passengers ahead of himself every time, all the time.

Law of the Harvest

I like how Director Clint Eastwood uses Sully’s love of running to take us back to critical snippets from Sully’s past. There’s one scene in the movie where Sully catches sight of an F-4 Phantom on display towards the end of his run. It was one run that augured well with his attempt to center himself during a period of tremendous self-doubt. That’s because the F-4 was the same aircraft where he and his co-pilot got involved in his very first   near-miss when he was still  a military aviator. He describes this in vivid detail in the book: “perhaps the most harrowing flight of my military career came in an F-4 out of Nellis…We were at a very low altitude, and I felt the plane move by itself. Imagine being in your car, driving along, and all of a sudden,  without turning the steering wheel, you start veering to the left. It would be a bit shocking.” (p. 121.) Even then, Sully was the take-charge pilot that he was during the Hudson River incident.  Instead of being swallowed by fear, “I immediately pulled the F-4 skyward. I needed a rapid climb  to get away from the unforgiving ground. I had to buy myself time and give myself room. At a higher altitude, Loren (his co-pilot) and I might be able to make sense of the malfunction and deal with it more effectively. More important, if the situation worsened, we would have the time and altitude to be able to recover or successfully eject and survive.” (p. 122.)

In yet another scene in the film where the viewer learns that his career as a military aviator was largely influenced by his teenage years flying crop-dusters in Denison,Texas Eastwood once again turns to running to evoke Sully’s reminiscences of the same.  Lest the viewer think that everything started when he did his first solo as a teenage boy, his memoir reveals that Sully considers himself “lucky to find my life’s passion at a very young age. I have a clear recollection that at age five I already knew I was going to spend my life flying airplanes.” (p. 131.)  Yet another reiteration of how world renowned theater personality Lea Salonga frames her landing the role of Miss Saigon. To wit: a classic case of preparation meeting with opportunity. Make no mistake about it.  Capt. Sullenberger’s feat at the Hudson River was not a flash in the pan. Far from it. It was premised on flying for thousands of hours  with optimal aptitude and passionate attitude.

Critical Thinking

The scene in the film where Sully discusses the value of striking a balance between following flight protocols and exercising a judgment call  reminds me of a recent talk given by Rock Ed founder and advocate Gang Badoy.  In her talk, Badoy decried the dogmatic approach of some overzealoous  employees even in situations which clearly call for a certain degree of latitude. One involved a hotel staff who refused to lend a thermos for making coffee  to a hotel guest who wanted to use it to bathe as it’s against hotel policy. The other involved a nurse who refused to administer an extra dose of anesthesia to a pregnant woman who was clearly in dire need of it given government policy about  patient-anesthesia ratios. Good thing that in both cases, it was Badoy’s critical thinking that fortunately triumphed over dogmatic compliance.   At the time of the flight emergency of Flight 1549 in 2009, critical thinking could be said to have saved the day. Consider how Sully’s thought processes concluded that  there were two options available to him when the crisis set in. One was for the flight officer to fly the plane so that he, the captain would have the time to figure out options available. The other was for the captain to fly the plane himself while the first officer sorted out the applicable trouble-shooting solutions. Sullenberger reflects thus, “Even in those early seconds, I knew this was an emergency that called for thinking beyond what’s usually considered appropriate. As a rush of information came into my head, I had no doubts that it made the most sense for me to take the controls…For one, I had greater experience flying the A320. Jeff (his first officer) was much newer to this type of plane. Also, all the landmarks I needed to see in order to judge where we  might go were on my side of the airplane. I also knew that since Jeff had just trained on the A320, he had more recent experience practicing the emergency procedures. He could more quickly find the right checklist out of about 150 checklists in our Quick Reference Handbook (QRH.)” (p. 211) Can you imagine what would have happened had Capt. Sully blindly followed the first option?

15 Years After

The timing of the movie’s screening could not have come at a more apt day of the year, opening as it did to phenomenal reviews by both critics and moviegoers 3 days before the 15th anniversary of 9/11. As one character in the movie  puts it, “It’s been a while since we’ve heard some good news about New York especially about planes.” More than providing us with a piece of good news about the city that never sleeps though, this Eastwood opus is also a tribute both to the beauty of this awe-inspiring metropolis and the spontaneous compassion of New Yorkers who came to the rescue of US Airways Flight 1549 on that fateful day of January 2009.  From its famous skyscrapers which have adorned hundreds of Hollywood movies to its busy streets brimming with so much energy and diversity, New York City as it is presented in Sully  beckons the moviegoer to visit this great city at least once within one’s lifetime.  And of course no less than Capt. Sullenberger points to January 15, 2009 as yet another great day celebrating the best that New Yorkers have to offer. “In the stress of the moment, there was an efficient kind of order that I found absolutely impressive. I also saw examples of humanity and goodwill everywhere I looked.  I was so moved when deckhands on ferries took off the shirts, coats, and sweatshirts they were wearing to help warm the passengers…I was seeing dozens of bystanders acting with great compassion and bravery – and a sense of duty. It felt like all of New York and New Jersey was reaching out to warm us.” (p. 250-251.)

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Kipling Revisited

Quite possibly, the most surprising revelation of this film even after having read Capt. Sully’s memoir was how unsympathetic and skeptical  the National Safety Transportation Board (NTSB) investigators were from the very beginning of their investigation.  That was not clearly explicitated in the book.  On several occasions in the movie, the NTSB sought to point out that Capt. Sully could have saved both the plane and the passengers had he decided to land in the nearest airport instead of gliding the plane and executing a water landing in the Hudson River.  While the whole world outside the investigation room was celebrating Capt. Sullenberger as a hero, the NTSB investigators were keen on proving he was the exact opposite for having done what he did.  That he was having the beginnings of a post-traumatic stress disorder during the investigation period only made the situation even more stressful.  As Capt. Sully notes:  “It took me a couple of month to process what had happened and to work through the post-traumatic stress…They told me I’ve be sleeping less, I’d have distracted thinking. I’d lose my appetite. I’d have flashbacks, and I’d do a lot of second-guessing and “what-iffing.”  (p. 273.) To the credit of Eastwood and his crew, Sully takes us on the backseat of what it means to go through such a harrowing experience as the movie offered various cinematic glimpses of how Flight 1549 could have ended tragically.  Thankfully, in the end, despite the self-doubts and the skepticism that came his way, Sully’s wife and partner, Lorrie observed that, “He is feeling better today. You know, he’s a pilot. He’s very controlled and very professional…I have said for a long time that he’s a pilot’s pilot, and he loves the art of the airplane.” (p. 276.) Reflecting on how Tom Hanks portrayed the steady demeanor of Capt. Sullenberger throughout the movie notwithstanding his self-doubts and the doubts that his heroic actions elicited in the NTSB, I can’t help but remember a poem by Rudyard Kipling. If, according to my  literature teacher, is an eloquent portrait of what it truly takes to be truly human. My classmates and I enthusiastically dissected this Kipling masterpiece line by line in search of wisdom to guide us during our high school years. We were amply rewarded with lessons that would last us a lifetime.  In Capt. Sully’s actions that fateful day in January 2009 as well as the many times he fulfilled his highest duty from the time he flew his first solo to his sorties as a military aviator, from his first commercial flight to his celebrated water landing onboard the A320, we have been blessed with a true to life contemporary reiteration of  Kipling’s admonition.

"If you can keep your head when all about you

Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,

If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,

But make allowance for their doubting too;

If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,

Or being lied about, don’t deal in lies,

Or being hated, don’t give way to hating,

And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise:

If you can dream—and not make dreams your master;

If you can think—and not make thoughts your aim;

If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster

And treat those two impostors just the same;

If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken

Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,

Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,

And stoop and build ’em up with worn-out tools:

If you can make one heap of all your winnings

And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,

And lose, and start again at your beginnings

And never breathe a word about your loss;

If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew

To serve your turn long after they are gone,

And so hold on when there is nothing in you

Except the Will which says to them: ‘Hold on!’

If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,

Or walk with Kings—nor lose the common touch,

If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you,

If all men count with you, but none too much;

If you can fill the unforgiving minute

With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run,

Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,

And—which is more—you’ll be a Man, my son!