Hero: a man distinguished by exceptional courage and nobility and strength; “RAF pilots were the heroes of the Battle of Britain’; (classical mythology) a being of great strength and courage celebrated for bold exploits; often the offspring of a mortal and a god.
Chesley Sullenberger is neither of those. He is a highly-trained professional’s professional, who did his job impeccably for 20-plus years as an Air Force fighter jock and line pilot. When the chips were down, he used his extensive training and experience to stay calm and continue to do the job he is paid to do. His exploit was not “bold,” it was the reaction of a professional.
Routine flights do not require professional pilots. Anyone who knows what switches to throw and how to read basic flight instruments can get a modern airliner from A to B — albeit not all that safely. Professionals are there for the exceptions, the “moments of terror” that every aviator has known. Captain Sullenberger’s accomplishment is remarkable, to be admired, and to not only his credit but also that of the people who trained him and continue to train him and his fellow pilots to handle precisely the kind of situation that occurred last week in the sky over New York. He is a pilot’s pilot, and a man for airplane drivers near and far to look up to.
But a hero? No. To call that man a hero is to cheapen the thousands of hours of work and experience that prepare every line pilot to do his or her job when the chips are down.
The public and the press won’t “get” this (neither wants to), but pilots of all sorts know exactly what I mean. The highest accolade anyone can give Chesley Sullenberger is, “they walked away from it.”