Hurtling toward catastrophe— certain death for himself, the 154 lives entrusted to him and a good many others, were he to crash into the densely packed houses below— Capt. Chesley B. Sullenberger III had the experience, the cool and the brains to make a series of decisions that left the passengers and crew of Flight 1549 alive and well, though shaken and chilled. Landing in a heavily trafficked section of the river, the crippled plane drew immediate attention as all nearby ships immediately converged to aid with the rescue. The pilot’s feat left New Yorkers rejoicing in what many hailed as a miracle, reviving hope despite the general despondency about the economy.
The drama that unfolded days before Obama’s inauguration resembles in microcosm what will face the new president. The captain of Flight 1549 reacted swiftly and appropriately to the crisis because he kept his cool while relying on his intelligence and experience. The new captain of the ship of state, though not so experienced, has demonstrated again and again the range of his intellect and his ability to stay calm while making decisions of consequence. On Tuesday, he will assume control of a perilous situation, daunting in its complexity. He will depend on a savvy team to implement his decisions, just as Sully relied on his crew. The downed plane also benefited from the “ad hoc flotilla” of nearby vessels. Ferry passengers took off their coats and covered the victims they hauled out of the frigid river.
David Watta, 42, a vice president at a travel media company, was headed home to New Jersey on the Weehawken Ferry as the plane went down. His ferry immediately changed course and headed toward the crash site. Shortly after it arrived, he said, passengers from the downed flight began to come aboard the ferry.
“We were holding people, hugging them, reassuring them, holding their hands, warming them with our body heat,” he said.
“We provided cell phones so they could call loved ones. A lot of them were so cold that they couldn’t dial, so we dialed for them. I would say that everyone on the ferry were heroes for the day. They were all civilians who stepped up in a time of need to help their fellow citizens.”
Obama has told Americans that surviving the economic crisis requires that everyone pitch in and make personal sacrifices. He has asked Americans to join him in a day of service on the holiday preceding his inauguration. Sully twice walked through the sinking airplane to make sure no one was left aboard before he too abandoned ship. Good leaders never demand more of their followers than they themselves are prepared to do.
If the professionalism and grit of an airline pilot can wrest deliverance from catastrophic double engine failure, then faith in the new president’s ability to lead the country out of crises that threaten not only America’s way of life, but its very survival, can’t be unfounded.