It was a cold winter day in New York when passengers boarded US Airways Flight 1549 bound for Charlotte, North Carolina.  Just after takeoff from LaGuardia and flying to the northwest over the Bronx, on a route skirting populous Manhattan Island, the fear of every pilot came true – the two jet engines simply stopped functioning, ending the powerful thrust forward that lifted and propelled the 50+ ton Airbus A-320 jetliner carrying 150+ passengers and crew members and a full load of jet fuel. (As the news media has reported, the plane apparently flew into the path of a flock of birds on climb out.)


So where do you go when the engines don’t (go)?  Well, down – and quickly!  Swiftly diminishing choices faced the cockpit crew: turn back to LaGuardia airport, glide to an alternative airport such as general aviation hub Teterboro in New Jersey, or to more distant Newark Airport; look for a large, flat piece of land – or land on the nearest waterway.  And so in the mid-afternoon of Thursday January 15, about where 50th Street intersects Manhattan Island east-west, the pilot and copilot glided their huge airship down to a textbook landing on the broad Hudson River between Manhattan and the New Jersey shoreline.  Splash!


Now New York City is a go-into-action town, as the world saw on that terrible day in September 2001 when two large jets were used as suicide bombers flying into the World Trade Center towers.  The waterway was soon alive with rescue boats steaming toward the now-floating jetliner.  Some of the little ferries that carry commuters to and from Manhattan Island from New Jersey were getting ready for the afternoon rush hour, and their crews cast off lines and raced toward the river’s middle.  US Coast Guard vessels sprang into action.  New York City Police Department helicopters quickly arrived and brave police divers dropped into the frigid waters to rescue passengers.  The NYC Fire Department’s Marine Unit raced to the scene. As help arrived, passengers and crew members were standing on the wings and floating tethered in emergency rafts alongside the giant airplane. What a sight!


And all of America tuned in to the drama, that afternoon and evening and into Friday and still today, Saturday, the drama is all over the news.  This is the story of the day in Gotham Town and on all the cable news channels.  And the word “hero” and “heroes” are part of very news segment.


Heroes Among Us


Those who have led men into combat know that is almost impossible to know who (among their squad or platoon or company or battalion etc.) will be a hero, and who will be the coward who cuts and runs when the action comes.  Ordinary men have earned a long list of Congressional Medal of Honor medals, or Silver Stars and Navy Crosses, or at the very least the gratitude of their comrades they served – and served with.


We expect certain people to perform as heroes when heroism and especially sacrifice is called for – it’s a given of leadership. We expect them to be accountable and responsible to and for those they lead, especially in difficult or crisis circumstances.  Our expectations are larger than life for the captain of the ship, in war and peace, responsible for the lives of many, whether shipborne warriors or cruise ship vacationers. And we have high expectations for the modern day and most ubiquitous of familiar captains, those with four stripes working in the cockpit of passenger liners in the air, responsible for safely ferrying passengers under every kind of weather and circumstance.


Doing His Duty – Accepting Responsibility


Today we as a nation are celebrating one of these hero-captains who did what he was trained to do, was supposed to do, and what he instantly recognized his fate would require him to do on January 15, 2009.  He flew his plane under the most difficult of circumstances, with zero power from the engines, just above the towers and cabling of the George Washington Bridge and on to the south, down the Hudson River…until he glided into the river in a picture perfect landing (at least for a land-based airplane!).  And in doing so he saved the people on board – passengers and crew, many “souls” in the words of pilots in command as well as sea captains.


Captain Charles B. Sullenberger III(“Sully”) is a veteran airline pilot with almost 40 years’ of service. He was graduated from the US Air Force Academy, served his country as a fighter pilot (Phantom F-4s, the same sturdy craft as the Navy’s famed Blue Angels once flew),  and is both a much-respected pilot and safety expert as well.  After the landing on the surface of the Hudson, the captain twice walked his stricken, sinking airliner to make sure everyone got out safely.  Then he headed for shore with all the passengers and crew.


We salute him today for doing his duty, for his care and concern for those souls in his charge, and for carrying out his duties as he accepted them.  All part of being in command, isn’t it?


New York Governor David Patterson calls it “the Miracle on the Hudson,” and indeed it is.  The city’s mayor, Michael Bloomberg said Capital Sully was a hero (and indeed he is).  The deputy secretary for public safety of the state, former state senator Mike Balboni (a longtime acquaintance and neighbor of ours) spoke to the captain and then told The New York Times: “There was no boasting. No emotions. No nothing…”  Captain Sullenberger told Senator Balboni that he did what he was trained to do.


That is not quite accurate; for all the flight simulation and rigorous training that goes on in the life of an airline pilot, they don’t simulate a crash landing on the Hudson River at somewhere north of 150 MPH with a full complement of passengers and a full load of jet fuel!  His long hours of training paid off; his attention to detail paid off; and his clear acceptance of accountability for the lives of those “souls” in his care surely was a deciding factor.


Let’s Celebrate All the Heroes on the Hudson


So we join the nation in saluting Captain Sully and his able co-pilot,Jeffrey B. Skiles. And hugs all around for the crew, those unsung men and women who helped save the lives of the passengers entrusted to their care once the plane hit the waters of the Hudson.  Thumbs up all around for the quick-thinking captains and crews of the commuter ferries, to tug boat crews, to the Coasties of the New York Harbor who raced in their [Coast Guard] vessels to the scene, and especially to New York’s Finest, the NYPD drivers who dropped into the cold waters to help those in need.  They rushed to the aid of their fellow human beings in a town that very frequently gets a bad rap for being “coldhearted” and mercenary to the rest of America.


As the news spread, these were cheering moments for folks not directly involved in the drama.  The rank and file folks who make US Airways hum had their delicious moment to savor, as their fellow workers demonstrated what being a member of an airline team on the line is all about.


In Charlotte, North Carolina the hometown folks awaiting the arrival of Flight 1549 that evening got some really good news, instead of the drumbeat of discouraging news about the hometown goliath, Bank of America, which has been buffeted by bad-news reports of late (including that day!).   New Yorkers, while a hardy breed for the most part, got their minds of Bernie Madoff and the missing billions of dollars entrusted to him by individual and institutional investors.   They briefly forgot about the now-fallen captains of prominent Wall Street who disregarded their accountabilities and wrecked so many lives. There was a brief respite from the constant waves of news about the failed leadership of Wall Street and American financial service organizations.


Leadership and Accountability


And that brings to a point we’ve been thinking about.  Does it take a courageous airline captain and crew and passengers to show us what personal and collective accountability is all about?  What responsibility to our fellow man and woman is all about?  The performance of Captain Sully and co-pilot Jeff Skiles are inspirations for all of us.


And what a contrast this is to the sorry performance of late of some other leaders – captains of industry and government — who had many “souls” in their care.  Employees, their dependents, retirees, shareowners, communities, charities – many have suffered because a certain few “in command” of mighty business organizations set aside their responsibilities in pursuit of … what?  Glory? Unseemly financial reward?  Reward without regard for risk?  Egotistical self-fulfillment?  Too much greed overpowering too little attention to risk?


As we await the arrival of the Obama Presidency next week, a spirit of renewal can be felt in the country.  There’s a feeling of we’re all in this together that has emerged as the mortgage crisis deepens, the capital markets continue on their nightmarish path, and as half million jobs a month disappear.  Thanks to all of the participants in this week’s New York City drama for showing us that most of us are still accountable and responsible for each other, and that when the chips are down, the great American Spirit will rise to meet the challenge.


The final word goes to another 30-year veteran of US Airways who speaks for many in her former airline and in the airline industry: Kathryn Keene’s letter today to the editor of The New York Timesurges the flying public to look closely at the plight of flight crews, pilots and attendants, and they way their salaries have been pillaged by management and their airlines have been merged mercilessly.  For too long flight crews have been overworked and underpaid, and abused, and yet their professionalism comes through when lives depend on them.  Gallantry and competence, she wrote, were much in evidence in the Miracle of the Hudson.


What a metaphor for the once proud and high-flying airline industry…of which this writer was a proud member for many years.  Maybe we can find some heroes once again to man the front offices of the nation’s air carriers.  People like CR Smith, the founder and four-decade CEO of American Airlines, who built his human assets until they were the envy of the airline industry, or Juan Trippe, the CEO of Pan Am as it became the world’s best-known airline, planting its flag everywhere.  It’s time!