Disclaimer: I knew going in that Highest Duty: My Search for What Really Matters by Chesley B. Sullenberger and Jeffrey Zaslo did not solely focus on Flight 1549 and the ditch in the Hudson River, so unlike others, I was not disappointed.
Throughout Highest Duty, Captain Sullenberger discussed how aviation and flying have been part of his entire life, starting at a young age and continuing to present day. His love of flying began with key moments like watching military jets in the sky and going on his first commercial flight with his mother, and grew during his flights with an instructor and his first solo flight.
Scattered throughout the book were stories of memorable flights and some air disasters that Sullenberger had over the years. He once had to divert the plane due to an ill passenger who later died. On another occasion, he flew Ellen DeGeneres and was amused by the comical way the First Officer spoke with her. Sullenberger was nearly suspended without pay when he refused to push back from his gate until all seats were filled with standby passengers. He also beautifully described one of the most perfect approaches and landings in his career.
Once the book started to detail Flight 1549 and the ditch in the Hudson River, I was captivated. He gave a thorough account of each and every thought that went through his head, from first seeing the birds to when he climbed into the ferry boat. Each and every move had great detail and I really got the sense of what it was like to be in the cockpit and then to be rescued. Sullenberger discussed everything from one passenger sitting in the exit row over the wing and actually reading the instructions on how to open the emergency exit (pull in, then out) when he heard the birds hit, to someone struggling to open the door since he did not read the instructions beforehand. Another underlying theme that Sullenberger addresses throughout Highest Duty is the way that commercial aviation has changed over the years. On his first commercial flight he wore his Sunday best; now pilots dress as if they are going to the gym. Sullenberger reminisces about how pilots used to be a step down from an astronaut, and now they are a step above a bus driver.
Due to cost cutting, pilots are no longer fed on flights and packing a lunch of sandwiches and a banana is commonplace. Wage concessions and cut pensions are now grim realities of the job. He suggests that children no longer seem as interested in flight, and often walk right past the cockpit while completely focused on their Ipods and video games.
Toward the end, Highest Duty provides snapshots of some of the passengers on Flight 1549 and their stories of the flight. One of the most moving stories was that of the daughter of the First Officer who crashed into the Everglades on ValuJet Flight 592. She spoke at length with Lorrie, Captain Sullenberger’s wife. The daughter never found peace with her father’s crash, always thinking that the last moments of his life were of sheer terror. In actuality, he was probably so focused on the task at hand that he did not have any other thoughts. Captain Sullenberger mentioned that he did not think of Lorrie, or his daughters Kate and Kelly, in those few short minutes. It was not that he did not care for them deeply, but the task at hand prevented his mind from wondering. Sullenberger’s words made the daughter of the ValuJet First Officer come to terms with what happened and find some peace. Her story truly moved me to tears. Being the wife of a pilot, I think that the book touched me in ways that only a pilot’s wife can be touched. I found myself really relating to Lorrie and actually crying at times because certain stories were an absolute foreshadowing of my life. For instance, Captain Sullenberger mentioned certain aspects of his daughters’ lives that have slipped through his fingers while he’s been gone. I hate to think that family life is missed since a pilot travels so much, but that is the reality of the job.
Highest Duty concludes with a discussion of Sullenberger’s life since Flight 1549 and is overall an extraordinary story of how one event can change your life in an instant. What an amazing chain of events. What an amazing outcome. What an amazing story.
Joanna is a pilot’s wife and a new blogger at Come Back Daddy.
This book was provided free of any obligation by William Morrow. No monetary or any other form of compensation was received.