No Heroics, Thank You.

Less than a minute after US Airways Flight 1549 to Charlotte, N.C. took off, Captain Sullenberger reported a “double bird strike” and asked to return to the ground. Minutes later, the plane was floating along the Hudson River.

One hates to be a party pooper in the face of such an extraordinary outcome, but this website is about clear, logical thinking and so I have to raise an obvious question:

Was Chesley Sullenberger, the pilot who that narrowly averted disaster by landing # 1549 in the Hudson really a hero? Were the emergency crews that responded also heroes?

Or were they simply true professionals, doing the job they were not only trained to do, but paid to do?

I have to conclude the latter. Sullengerger is undoubtedly a great pilot, but he had only two choices in that situation: a) Scream “We’re all gonna die,” put his hands over his eyes and duck under the flight controls in prayer, or do what any well trained, 40-year veteran, former F-4 fighter pilot would do in that situation and attempt to land the plane (an Airbus A320) to the best of his ability - saving not just the lives of 150 others, but also his own.

Masterful pilot, yes. Hero, not really. Doing everything you can to prevent the plane you are sitting in from crashing is not necessarily heroic. (Oh, and it wasn’t a ‘miracle’ either – because rational people don’t believe in miracles, do we Mayor Bloomberg?) It was plane old (excuse pun) seat of the pants, first class, gut reaction flying that saved the day. And I bet “Sully” Sullenberger would be the first to agree.

We’re remarkably sloppy about the way we use the term hero. The soldiers in Iraq are heroes, our firefighters are all heroes, even John McCain was a hero. Americans really need their heroes.

What these folk really have in common is something less radical. They are all doing dangerous jobs; but jobs they willingly signed up for, are paid for, and sometimes revel in.

That is not to say that they do not deserve praise, or that we’re not eternally grateful for the job that they do – or even that some of them are not truly heroic, but they are not automatic heroes.

The events of 9/11 undoubtedly produced a number of real heroes: individuals who, knowing that their actions might result in their own death, nevertheless took action in order to help someone else. We will never know all the true stories of heroism that took place that day.

But simply being a fireman or a soldier, and getting killed as a result does not make you a hero. Particularly if you could not have predicted the danger. And on 9/11 few predicted the collapse of the twin towers until it was too late. What these men were is incredibly brave in the face of danger, but there’s a difference between being brave and being a hero, and we’re dishonest if we don’t make that distinction. Very few people willingly “give” their lives. People don’t usually give their lives willingly - their lives are simply taken from them. The distinction is a real one, because one of the groups are heroes and the other is not.

The truth is that when something awful happens and someone dies as a result, we don’t know what to do or say – so we call them a hero – a sort of booby prize for having been needlessly killed. AutreyWe’ve lost thousands of men an women in the Iraq war and we have little to offer the families of these soldiers in return. So we call their kids heroes who “gave” their lives for American freedom – and hope that will be some consolation.

The following real life individuals can properly be described heroes:

The man who risked his life by jumping into an icy lake to save a kid he’d never met; the soldier who jumps on a hand grenade to save his colleagues and Wesley Autrey, who jumped onto the tracks and rolled with 19-year-old Cameron Hollopeter into the trough between the rails at 137th Street station for no apparent reason other than the fact that it seemed a good idea at the time.

Spartacus was a hero when he slayed his friend Antonius in a duel to the death organized by the Romans – because the winner was to be put to death on the cross… which excruciatingly painful death brings me to another would-be hero – Jesus Christ (Superstar). Assuming he existed at all, Jesus might have been the ultimate hero, giving his life so that the entire world would be saved (well at least the Christians). Except, Jesus was really just another manifestation of God himself – so I don’t believe this really counts.

Spartacus fights his way through the Romans

One of Sullenberger’s neighbors, Candace Andersen, hit the nail on the head. She said that the “right pilot” had been in charge at the time of the accident.

“You look at his training, you look at his experience – it was the right pilot at the right time in charge of that plane that saved so many lives,” she said.


So can we be more selective (and less dramatic) about our use of the word “hero”?

Because when everyone and anyone is a hero, it diminishes the true heroes.

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  1. About freakin time someone gave this notion a second’s thought.

  2. I’ve mentioned your thoughts at work today, and the responzes I’ve gotten were frightening to say the least.Besides racial, religious or gun ownership matters this one seems to be right up there with things one dare not to question. Stupidity went into overdrive with comments like “Why don’t YOU try to fly a plane” and long stares of disbelieve how someone could even questioning that this guy was one of the greatest heroes of our times. At this stage I would give ANYONE a full hero status who is willing to simply have a rational conversation.

  3. In this day of lazy, self servers, it is nice to see someone do something extraordinary, whether it is his/her job or not. It’s hard to trust anyone to do their job today. This guy did his when it mattered the most. Hero or not is irrelevant. I’d want this type of rare person in the cockpit when I’m flying.

  4. The word is “plain” not “plane” in your sentence ‘… plane old seat of the pants.’ And yes, “Sully” is a HERO simply because he used his years of training and expertise to execute a safe landing that saved all 155 people on board. He’s not only a HERO, but a SAINT!!!

  5. Louis, the word “plane” a pun on the word “plain” (hence what follows in brackets). And this exemplifies the problem. Too many people just go with their gut instead of thinking about it for a second. Now, a “saint” you say? So now this is a relegious issue?? Interesting. Can Sully walk on water as well as land planes on water?

  6. ok louis is obviously not the sharpest knife in the drawer – obviously a religious nut to boot. exactly the sort of person this site is aimed at…

  7. This piolt was NOT a hero, why would you call someone who didn’t put his life at stake a “hero” it was he either landed the plane to save his own life or he crashed it and took others with him, like a terrorist. =)
    See, now if Spiderman was there and created a web to save the plane from hiting the water at all, that would be heroic.

    Hero – A person noted for feats of courage or nobility of purpose, especially one who has risked or sacrificed his or her life.

    He didn’t have courage, he had the fear of loseing his life so he took action, its called ADRENALIN people.

  8. People need heroes, it’s part of our psychological makeup. What this guy did was heroic in a popular and inaccurate kind of way, but we’re in the middle of a recession and we need some good news – so hey, he’ll do, right?

  9. jennyftrot 01/18/2009, 12:38

    It’s all about the media stupid – they just LOVE this kind of shit. You can almost see them jumping up and down with glee every time something big breaks. They live for this sort of drama… I’m telling you – used to work for a newspaper and the guys would just about cream themselves every freakin’ time something like this would happen. It sells tons of newspapers. They just can’t WAIT to splash the words HERO right across the front page.

  10. In order to be a hero, you need to RISK your own life – not save it!

  11. Thank God somebody is brave enough to write their true feelings and avoid getting caught up in the public cry of Hero BS. In my opinion any other big commerical airline pilot would most likely have successfully ditched the plane in the Hudson just like he did. He is to be greatly commended, but not glorified as a hero.

  12. As a Career Fireman of 8 years, I’m appaulded that this guy is placed in the same category as my fellow brothers from FDNY that dies in the towers on 9/11. Absolutely incredible what politics (Bloomberg’s actions) can persuade an individual to say or do presenting a “key to the city” to someone that just flat out did their job.


    Should I give my trash man a key to the dump, because he was there to pick up my trash this week, after he’s been late for 2 months? Gimme a break people. Grow up.

  13. As an officer in the military, I don’t understand your statement, “Or were they simply true professionals, doing the job they were not only trained to do, but paid to do?” Why are military members/firefighters heroes based on your definition of a hero? Because we’re also trained and paid to be in harm’s way when the community or the nation needs our protection. I believe in every field of work there are opportunities to exhibit heroism; which, for military members and firefighters, those opportunities are certainly more abundant than for an airline pilot. What FDNY did on 9/11 was no doubt heroic, but it was also their job. What our nation’s boys are doing in Iraq is no doubt heroic at times, but it is also their job. What this pilot did was also heroic; and yes, it too was his job. That shouldn’t discredit his actions, however because he is a paid professional. There are thousands of paid airline pilots that couldn’t have accomplished what he did. I won’t question if his reward was overdone, but I can conclusively say his actions for safely landing an airline with no fatalities in a river are nothing short of heroic.

  14. But what choice did he have?? Crash deliberately? Of course not – he had no real choice and did what he had to do. If he’d been less successful and everyone had drowned, would he no longer be a hero? If so, that means he’s only a hero because he was successful. Except he was successful because he’s a damn good pilot – not a hero.

  15. Your reply makes sense. You’re saying he was forced into the situation and performed well. Whereas a “hero” would volunteer his life or well-being for the protection of others. I agree but with a slight qualification. I also happen to be a pilot and can put myself in the cockpit in his situation. He did, in fact have alternate options. The flight path taken gave him the opportunity to land at a nearby airport. However, airspeed and altitude at the point of engine failure would have required a “hot” landing on a short runway or possibly an overshoot. I have no doubt in my mind that this pilot chose the Hudson to avoid the potential to harm anyone on the ground. Landing in the river carried far greater risk to himself and to those on board the aircraft than landing at the alternate airport. Landing in the river, however, ensured that ground casualties were minimized. So he put his own life at risk to ensure the safety of those who had no say in the matter (innocent families and homes nearby the densely populated alternate airport). That, to me, is heroic.

  16. I sort of agree Ray. But I happen to think that, based on what I’ve heard, he knew he wouldn’t even make it as far as the nearest airport. They were losing altitude far too quickly and they’d never have made it. I think he calculated well and took the only option he was left with. No pilot ditches when there are other options because it rarely works out like this one did. And I’m sure he’s as amazed as everyone else that it worked out so well and the thing didn’t even sink – and that’s thanks to Airbus’ new plug system designed assist with buoyancy. So in short, I still think he did what he had to do given the time he had to think about it. Great judgment, great skill, TONS of experience and a little luck.

  17. Yeah, yeah. I’ve played with my leggos and made things come crashing down and stuff. Sure, yeah, I mean why not, huh? Everyone is a sick idiot just waiting to happen. Kinda like taking a sh*t, huh? You’re blessed with the F*cking air to breath, yeah, why not, just light a f*king pipe and dream on…. Sure you’re a f*king hero in your own minds, you know who you are by your sick ass attitudes about people just “doing their f*king jobs.” You lame asses… Get real, the world needs people who CAN DO THEIR JOBS… Butt licks you are… I’m not angry, just appalled by your ‘sweet tart attitudes”. You morons.

    He’s a Freaking Saint…YOU HEAR ME?? HE”S A FREAKING SAINT!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  18. wow Bungyjump, I am changing my mind and am willing to call the parking meter outside my house a ‘heroic mechanical wonder” If it would mean to never meet anyone of your interlect in any needy real life situation.
    Besides me loosing even more hope that only people with an IQ of above 17 are willing and able to respond on thought provoking blogs like this one , your post has added nothing to this discussion.

  19. @ TheChicken

    “Hero – A person noted for feats of courage or nobility of purpose, especially one who has risked or sacrificed his or her life.” (Not sure where you sourced this so I looked it up and listed below.)

    Courage – mental or moral strength to venture, persevere, and withstand danger, fear, or difficulty (www dot m-w dot com)

    Hero – one that shows great courage (www dot m-w dot com)

    If A then B.

    Also, @ moderator, great site! I’ll be feeding from now on.

  20. Update Jan 23 2009: I think we can put this one to bed. Even the pilots say they are not heroes. The co-pilot said “We’re just pilots. That’s what we do. Any other pilot would have done exactly the same thing.” I think that’s what this article has been trying to say along… these guys were just doing their jobs… they did them tremendously well and deserve praise for their courage and quick thinking but pilots are not heroes – they’re much better than that – they’re highly trained professionals and I’d rather have one of those than some ”hero” flying the plane any day!

  21. Models aren’t just models now, they’re SUPER models
    Adult actors/actresses are porn STARS
    Any one who’s ever been in the military is a war HERO or a VETERAN.
    Yeah, everyone’s a freakin’ HERO these days… maybe it’s because our own lives are so freakin’ PATHETIC.

  22. Did you hear about the crash a couple of days ago in NY? Everyone died. Including both pilots – who, this time, weren’t heros, but assholes I suppose? All because the outcome was different this time??? Brains people. You got them. Use them. Nice site.

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