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Reluctant Heroes

Speaking of Courage*

By William Wynne, WilliamTCA@aol.com


Captain Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger
Captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger, cochairman of EAA’s Young Eagles program, has coauthored the autobiographical book, Highest Duty: My Search for What Really Matters, released in October 2009.
Photo credit: Jim Koepnick

I just finished reading Captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger’s book, Highest Duty: My Search for What Really Matters. Most of what I read are biographies or autobiographies, and it’s rare I find one from an aviator that isn’t worth reading. Sully’s seemed particularly good. He tells his story back from when he was an airport kid in Texas flying a Champ. Many polished biographies elevate the subject above reality. This book does a good job of shedding some light on the life of an aviator who is, likely, far more than the pages convey.

If you were in the United States Air Force or ever worked in the airline industry, you’ll notice he emerges as a strong advocate of these callings. Sully does a first-class job of explaining the mindset and challenges of the professionals that inhabit these parts of aviation. His sudden popularity says something about America, and he touches on this in the book. He has a Facebook site with 675,000 “friends.” A few weeks back, I read in the New York Times that his book has been a modest success, selling 92,000 copies. The difference in the numbers tells me that people out there are looking for a hero, but they care far less to know how their heroes think or what forces shaped their lives.

Sully has a simple message inside his tale: Training pays off, even if it isn’t tested. Living your life prepared is its own reward. Today, many people want to know the tricks and inside tips on any subject they encounter. They want the CliffsNotes version on life instead of actually living. Sully, who recounts a lifetime perfecting his craft, offers a strong indictment of such a mentality.

He’s quite clear that the terms “hero” or “miracle” don’t apply to himself or to US Airways Flight 1549. He explains why the successful outcome was the result of training, teamwork, judgment, and a few factors going their way. He overtly states that he didn’t expect to die. However, Sully does believe in both heroes and miracles, and part of the book explains this by contrasting his situation with that of Captain Alfred C. “Al” Haynes and United Airlines Flight 232.

We seem to forget quickly these days; America has long forgotten the name and the flight number, but most people in aviation remember the Sioux City accident of 1989. It happened my first year at Embry-Riddle. The crash was examined in great detail and was the case study in many classes. At the university, we had a good idea of how low the odds of survival were, and most of the school felt the term “miracle” could very well apply. The crew of UA-232 fought to find any way to regain control of the DC-10. Haynes and crew had little reason to believe they would live. Through astounding skill, composure, and leadership, Haynes made the best landing possible. One hundred and eighty-five people lived; many did not.

Captain Haynes came to speak at Embry-Riddle not long after the accident. His face still had the scars of the crash. He had been hailed in the media, but they were incapable of appreciating what made this crash different. Captain Haynes being at Riddle had to be different for him. Here we had several thousand people who had some real understanding of what he had pulled off. I went to see him up close, to look at a captain who had just returned from battle.

In Fate Is the Hunter, Ernest K. Gann’s preface states that airline flying is a kind of a war story, where “the designated adversary always remains inhuman, frequently marches in mystery, and rarely takes prisoners.” I stood five feet away and watched Captain Haynes as he spoke to people. He was kind and direct, but somewhat detached, with a look as if his real thoughts were far away. I was young and impressionable, and clearly before me was a real hero. He had salvaged a victory from a certain disaster. To my eyes, he was now among the pantheon of aviation’s eternal stars. Perhaps the distant look in his eyes was appropriate for a man who was proven in a field where all prepare for their battle, but very few are tested.

Captain Al Haynes
Captain Al Haynes speaking at EAA AirVenture Oshkosh 2004.
Photo: Over the Airwaves - The Journal for the Proficient Pilot

Fourteen years later, Captain Haynes was the guest speaker at the evening program at the Theater in the Woods at EAA AirVenture Oshkosh. Here, at the center of the world of flight, his star has never been diminished. The outside world has forgotten and moved on, yet here inside, the faithful fill every seat. It had been a full day of exciting things, but the people were now settling down as they took their places in the theater. They soon began to listen to a serious subject from a man known for a heroic deed. The last time I saw him, I was part of a very young group, just at the start of our time in aviation. I looked around and saw where my classmates and I would be in another 20 years; the people around me had most of their flying logged away. Their gray hair and modest dress told outsiders nothing of the adventures these people had seen. They had led the strenuous life of challenge and known its rewards - and perhaps its costs as well. I looked around and guessed that potentially a great number of them had lost a close friend to flight. As soon as I formed that thought, I realized that, 14 years later, I too was in this last group.

The presentation was a technical one. Captain Haynes had made it his duty to frequently speak on behalf of preparation, teamwork, training - and when your test comes - not losing yourself or giving in to fear. He had spent the previous years communicating this message, never accepting a fee or any kind of reward. They played the air traffic control tapes and slowly brought us to the moment of the crash. The audience was moved. Many people near me sat quietly wiping away tears in the dark. Perhaps they were thinking of friends now long gone. Maybe they wished their friends had been luckier and had a man like Al Haynes for an instructor, a mentor, or a copilot.

At the end of the presentation, a man, looking like he could have come from any EAA chapter in America, stood up. He struggled to gather himself and start a sentence. After a moment, in a choked voice, he got out, “I just want to say I think you’re a hero.” A round of applause broke out, but it was quickly put down with a wave of Captain Haynes’s hand. He addressed the man directly. In an even voice with very little emotion, he said, “I am not a hero. One hundred and twelve people on my flight died. Please sit down.”

After the lights turned on and the people drifted away, I sat with my wife, Grace. It was very hard for her. I have little memory of my time in the burn intensive care unit, but Grace had sat there all day, every day, for weeks after my crash. The cost wasn’t abstract to her. Of all the people in the theater, she knew what the last moments of many of the 112 had looked like. After some time, we got up to walk out to the parking lot. As we went past the back of the theater, Captain Haynes was standing there with a few of the people from stage crew. Grace went over to personally thank him for the evening. I stood about five feet away.

The 14 years had not been kind to Al Haynes. Both his son and wife had died. His daughter was terribly ill. I couldn’t hear what he was saying softly to Grace, but he had the same look as he did in 1989. He was there, but detached. His story reminded me of a Greek tragedy. No matter how noble his actions, fate struck people in his care. A different man might have written it all off. Given up, assigned the events to bad luck, a curse, or even a vengeful God. I don’t think it’s too much to say that Al Haynes would have none of these outs. He is a man, naval aviator, and airline captain. He has a lifetime of being in command, evaluating the circumstance, minimizing the risk, and taking responsibility for the outcome. Such a man couldn’t easily shrug off or rationalize away the loss. Right or wrong, he’s the kind of man that would only see it as his personal responsibility. This is the reason I will always say Captain Haynes is my hero.

* “Speaking of Courage” is the title of one of the stories in Tim O’Brien’s 1990 collection, The Things They Carried. The writing is an unflinching look at sorrow, love, and personal responsibility in the wake of tragedy. It’s a profoundly moving work of philosophy for people who don’t trust easy answers to hard questions.
Thank you.

William Wynne
5000-18 HWY 17 #247
Orange Park, FL 32003

Permission to reprint is granted to all. Please credit William Wynne and CONTACT!Magazine. This article was intended for CONTACT!, but I felt it needed a broader audience. ~Pat

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