Book Review: Highest Duty – My Search for What Really Matters
Highest Duty: My Search for What Really Matters is the autobiography of the now-celebrity pilot who landed American Airlines Flight 1549 in the Hudson River on 15 January 2009. Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger is both an Air Force Academy graduate and a former Air Force fighter pilot.
From the perspective of a pilot, Highest Duty is a fascinating read. The book is well written, managing to string the 3 minute ordeal through 330 pages of Sullenberger’s life without becoming slow or overly tedious. While his celebrity status was cemented by the ordeal, the book covers not only the emergency landing but also his life story.
One of the more intriguing parts of that “life story” has been the element of faith, but not for the reason most might expect.
The recounting of the incident contains enough technical detail (including the entire transcript of the short flight) to interest experienced aviators without confusing or boring those who are not. For example, Sullenberger and his co-author describe the digital flight controls of the side-stick controlled Airbus, which are very similar to modern fighter aircraft. The computer-driven system is designed so that pilots can’t stall the aircraft. When the plane slows to the minimum speed allowed for its current configuration, it simply refuses the pilot’s commands to continue to raise (or hold up) the nose. Sullenberger understood this system and used it to slow to the point where his stick was “full aft,” as slow as the jet would allow him to get. Thus, while he had to put effort into keeping the wings level, he didn’t have to worry about speed or pitch — the computer decided it for him.
In what is likely an act of kindness, Sullenberger mentions but does not dwell on the fact that one of the aircraft’s rear doors was opened after the crash landing, allowing water to enter the cabin at what was likely a greater rate than otherwise would have occurred from the reportedly damaged tail section.
Sullenberger does describe some of his military days, including his F-4 flying. He is almost dismissive of it, however; he describes his Air Force Academy experiences in one 20 page chapter, and essentially the entirety of his 6-year military career in one other. He notes that he served in a peacetime service, and his “war stories” continue his general life theme by focusing on safety — as described in the mishaps, or near mishaps, he experienced. There are no tactical or operational stories related.
The more interesting details are found in the stories of his civilian life that so much reflect the “stereotypical fighter pilot.” He acknowledges his ability to compartmentalize, his need for routine and checklists, and he discusses the challenges of being away from family so often.
Still, one of the most intriguing aspects of Sullenberger’s response to the crash has been the element of faith:
Sullenberger has never mentioned God or any aspect of faith since the crash.
The book was written to describe “all the forces that molded [him] as a boy, as a man, and as a pilot,” yet it never mentions religion. His four-page long acknowledgements never mention anything remotely spiritual. In fact, with respect to himself, Sullenberger uses religious terminology only twice in the entire 330 page book: once to say he worked as a church janitor, and once to say he knew a girl through the church choir. All other references to religion or spirituality are incidental, and encompassed in others or their stories:
- He sent one of his daughters to an Episcopal pre-school.
- He quotes his wife saying she had “spiritual experiences” in nature.
- He “was told” some of his passengers were praying before the crash landing; he recounts one of those short prayers.
- He recounts the story of a Holocaust survivor and his Jewish family, and their Jewish understanding of Sullenberger’s deeds.
- He mentions that a minister from the United Methodist Church attended his father’s private funeral.
- He quotes his wife wishing his mother enjoyable travels as they spread her ashes on a mountaintop.
- He describes trying to live his life as a “Good Samaritan.”
Those few lines encompass the totality of explicit religion and faith in Sullenberger’s book, which purportedly recounts the forces that molded his life. In whole, he appears to be neither explicitly for nor against faith.
The “lack” of faith — or even a clear statement on a possible atheistic or agnostic belief — is unusual for this story because of how often Sullenberger dealt with life, mortality, and death. He saw the results of a plane crash up close as a young teenage pilot; he was an investigator on fatal aircraft mishaps; one of his passengers suffered a medical emergency and died on a domestic flight; most obviously, he and 154 others survived a mishap that could very well have taken their lives. Yet he does not speak of the eternal or mortal significance of that event.
While some may consider such detail “personal,” the book is rife with equally personal anecdotes. He quotes his favorite songs and poems, describes his decision to move in with his second wife, and recounts the struggles of infertility and adoption.
His book is not totally without implicit philosophical statements on his beliefs; it is just difficult to draw a conclusion from them. He believes he has “been given a role to play.” He speaks of a moral obligation to protect life; he lauds charitable causes; he describes the beauty of the earth, both from mountaintops and the cockpit of an airplane.
Quoting another pilot who survived a mishap, he makes a point to say “the word he uses, “luck,”” which clearly implies his disdain for the word. In televised interviews and statements Sullenberger has been quick to credit skill and training rather than luck or miracles, which may be the explanation behind his word choice. Sullenberger has earned praise not only for his skillful piloting, but also for his refusal to accept the “hero” moniker and his constant reference to his copilot and crew.
Sullenberger does occasionally speak of the end of life, and dealing with death; his stories seem to belie a pragmatic or even indifferent attitude toward questions of eternity. In teaching his daughters to grow, he said:
“At the end of their lives, like all of us, I expect they might ask themselves a simple question: Did I make a difference? My wish for them is that the answer to that question will be yes.”
A few years after a squadron mate was killed in an accident, he describes meeting his widow:
I told her that I thought her husband was a terrific guy and a gifted pilot, and that I had always enjoyed his company. I told her how sorry I was. And then I was quiet. There wasn’t much more I could say.
It is interesting to consider Sullenberger’s life, as told in the book, with regard to his title. He explicitly relays his belief in a pilot’s “highest duty:”
“A captain’s highest duty and obligation is always to safety.”
This is consistent with the theme of his book and the independent company he was attempting to create over the past few years.
Sullenberger does not appear to explicitly provide an answer to the subtitle; that is, he does not give the “results” of his “search for what really matters.” There are times when that is almost sad. For example, as already noted, he describes the difficulties of being gone so often for his flying job, and he also notes those absences were compounded by the celebrity status thrust upon him after the crash. He acknowledges the challenges to his marriage and his relationships with his now teenage daughters…yet he never seems to address that challenge, at least not in a way communicated in the book. Instead, it seems to be a difficulty he accepts as something hard one has to deal with in life. In addition, he does say that being an airline pilot is “part of what gives [him] purpose.”
Sullenberger recently retired from flying, saying he wants to focus on flight safety. It seems sad that, in a way, the 59 year old pilot seems to still be trying to figure out “what really matters.”
The “spiritual” side of Sullenberger’s story has been highlighted by atheists more than anyone else. It is likely they see a “potential atheist” in his demurring responses to those who ask if he thinks the results were a “miracle.” To them, a “famous” and popular atheist would seem a boon.
While Sullenberger’s religious beliefs, or lack thereof, have been the topic of much speculation, there’s no way to really know what they are. It is unlikely that he is either an aggressive evangelical or a militant atheist, though it is possible his publisher scrubbed possible implications of those leanings from his book. It is possible to speculate, but that is all it would be.
Recommended for those interested in aviation, both military and civil. It may serve a useful purpose in inspiring introspective on several fronts, like family separations and mortality. Just realize it makes no effort to “answer” those life challenges.
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