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Why has Chesley Sullenberger refused the mantle of hero?

By 1.27.09

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Despite the media's best efforts, Chesley Sullenberger has refused the mantle of "hero." Now, why?

Didn't "Sully" pilot his Airbus A320 to a safe landing in the middle of the Hudson River after its takeoff was stymied by a flock of Canada Geese? And didn't all 155 on board make it safely off the sinking airliner, wet and chastened by the intimate knowledge of near death? Well, sure, but -- and we'll get to that.

Sully's co-pilot had control of the big twin engine jet as it took off from LaGuardia Airport January 15, but when the birds struck and the engines died, Sully took control. LaGuardia was considered as a return point, but the pilot banked left, with New Jersey's Teterboro Airport in the distance. A slim chance with no power. He veered over the George Washington Bridge and began a pilot's nightmare, a dead-stick landing in water. The trick is to lose as much speed as possible without stalling and to make that final moment in level flight, taildown. If there was anything going for Sully it was that the river current was running with him. As we know, the plane made it into the water evenly, the left engine giving way but the plane remaining upright in the water -- so much so that 155 people could make their way safely through the emergency doors and onto the wings, wet but alive.

A hero, Sully? He avoided publicity at the outset, partly because the Transportation Safety Board doesn't like the crews of planes involved in accidents spouting off about the experience (the feds like to issue their "probable cause" findings months and months after the event) and probably because he knows what a real hero is. Despite the old definitions about Greek warriors, real heroism requires sacrifice. A hero, by modern standards, is one who disregards his own safety in order to aid others. Sully's feat, a remarkable piece of airmanship, did not involve his leaving a place of safety in order to help the others. He was one of the others. His own tail was one of the 155 in such jeopardy.

He explained that the plane's crew was "simply doing the job we were trained to do."

There are at least 154 others who would beg to differ with that simplification.

If we cannot have a hero, is there some one or thing to blame? Sure. Not too many years ago it was feared that the Canada goose and a smaller cousin might soon be extinct, at least in the United States. Hunters mourned their declining numbers. But environmental efforts were successful until today we have what is in many areas a goose surfeit. Ask a golfer who plays courses in the Eastern United States.

And if you get the chance, ask a goose: "Why, in the middle of January, are you still here? You, migratory bird, are supposed to be south by now." Somehow the regenerated Canadians seem to enjoy life in the northern states even into winter. Which probably accounts for a flock of them crossing the outbound trace of an Airbus A320 at LaGuardia Airport in mid-January.

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About the Author

Reid Collins is a former CBS and CNN news correspondent.