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Highest Duty

reviewed by Philip Greenspun; February 2010

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This is a review of Highest Duty: My Search for What Really Matters by Captain Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger and Jeffrey Zaslow.

A hastily ghostwritten autobiography that gets almost no negative reviews at Amazon must indicate that public appreciation for Captain Sully is undiminished. I am summarizing/reviewing this feel-good book as a companion to my review of the highly technical Fly by Wire. The sections below correspond to the order of the chapters in the book.

The Early Years

Our future airline pilot solos at age 16 from a grass crop dusting strip in rural Texas, with just 7.5 hours of flight time under his belt. At our local airport, Hanscom Field, the average would be closer to 25 or 30 hours. We fly tricycle gear airplanes that practically land themselves onto a 7000' runway suitable for a Boeing 767. Captain Sully was flying an old-style taildragger, which is a much trickier beast to operate, especially in a crosswind. He gets his Private certificate in October 1968, with 70 hours of experience. His first passenger was his mother.

Sadly, even in 1968, "no girl had ever expressed much interest in my experiences as a pilot."

Leading Up to the Water Landing

On page 19 we learn that Captain Sully likes to "quietly kiss [his wife] before every trip and whisper 'I love you'" but doesn't like to wake her up. He is away from home 18 days per month. Sully was based in San Francisco for Pacific Southwest Airlines, which was acquired by USAir. When USAir shut down the base, due to the byzantine unionized seniority-based system prevailing at airlines, Captain Sully could not simply go to work for United, JetBlue, or some other airline with a San Francisco base. He would have had to start his career over as a first officer (copilot). So he hopped on a 7:30 am flight to his base in Charlotte, North Carolina as a "non-rev" passenger.

Captain Sully briefs the crew before the trip, letting them know that he will call the hotel upon arrival to make sure that the shuttle van is on its way. We learn about Jeff Skiles, who had been a captain at USAir until shrinkage and the seniority rules pushed him back to first officer. Skiles was an experienced Boeing 737 pilot making his first trip in the Airbus after some simulator time and then a few dozen training hours with a "check airman". Sully says that Skiles was "conscientious and very well versed in everything about the Airbus. If he hadn't told me this was his first trip since being trained, I wouldn't have known."

Leg 1 of the Trip: Charlotte to San Francisco

The crew's first leg of the four-day trip turns out to be back to San Francisco. Note that due to the madness of the seniority system, the captain is starting out the trip already exhausted from getting up at 5:00 am and enduring a coast-to-coast ride in an airline coach seat. Sully talks about how a favorite poem "All I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by" comes to mind when he sees the planet Venus: "If I'm ever unable to access the global positioning system or use the compass in the cockpit, I know I'll be OK. I could just keep Venus in the left front corner of the windshield and we would reach California." [Alternatively one could call Air Traffic Control and say "request vectors San Francisco".]

Sully talks about the fact that his daughters will never be able to ride with him in the cockpit. In the post-September 11 world, even little blond girls are suspected terrorists and no exceptions can be made that would allow them in a jumpseat. (Though the TSA does exercise some discretion, e.g., not asking Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab how he planned to celebrate Christmas in Detroit with no luggage or coat.)

Sully makes it home to Danville for the overnight, rather than going to the crew hotel, and makes himself two sandwiches for the next leg. He notes that the airlines no longer provide meals for the crew on long flights, even though they are catering the flight with meals for at least the first class passengers. (The staple diet of first officers at the regional airline where I worked were Biscoff cookies (delicious) and peanuts (reliable trigger for rage directed at the flight attendant by mothers of today's fragile youth).)

Leg 2 of the Trip: San Francisco to Pittsburgh

The crew completes the day's single leg of flying and ends up in the Pittsburgh airport La Quinta Inn and Suites. There is a 10-hour rest period, but much of it is taken up with getting to and from the hotel, eating dinner, and showering.

Legs 3 and 4 of the Trip: Pittsburgh to LaGuardia and back

Do not share this book with anyone who has ever worked for a regional airline. Captain Sully's entire day consists of a LaGuardia out-and-back. Even with a delay at LGA, he is back in Pittsburgh before noon and starting a 24-hour rest period. (Four or five legs of this length would be typical for a regional airline pilot's duty period.)

Legs 5 and 6 of the Trip: Pittsburgh to Charlotte to LaGuardia

The crew wakes up and flies uneventfully from Pittsburgh to Charlotte and then up to LaGuardia.

Last Leg of the Trip: LaGuardia to Charlotte

Sully remembers buying a tuna sandwich at LGA for more than $8 and planning to eat it on the flight to Charlotte, then catch a 5:50 pm plane home to San Francisco to end the trip. The chapter ends with the fully functional plane being handed off from LaGuardia Tower to New York Departure.

Back to 1903

The next chapter is "Those Who Came Before" and reminds us of aviation's history going back to the Wright brothers in 1903. Very quickly we fast-forward to today's brutally competitive environment, in which passengers want the cheapest flights and regional airlines pay pilots $16,000 per year (I earned $19,000/year until I was furloughed during the Collapse of 2008-?): "Veteran pilots--those who have the experience that would help them in emergencies--won't take these jobs." I don't understand this point. There is no big reservoir of high-time jet pilots in the U.S. who are staying at home gardening or working as accountants because they don't want to accept the derisory wages offered by airlines. Aside from endless trips around the pattern in a Cessna 172, there is no obvious way to build up a lot of flying experience except by carrying passengers. So regardless of the pay scale, some of America's airline pilots are going to be new to the world of jets.

Time rolls backward from today's skinflint airline managers to a couple of "unheralded test pilots who, on September 20, 1944, risked their lives by landing their B-24 Liberator in Virginia's James River. This was a voluntary ditching, considered the first test on a full-size aircraft." The flight crew survived, but the plane was pretty thoroughly wrecked. Sully talks next about the 1956 ditching of a Pan Am Boeing 377 in the Pacific Ocean; everyone survived.

The next incident covered is PSA Flight 1771, which Sully investigated. A disgruntled ground employee shot the pilots and then himself, resulting in a crash that killed all 43 people on board. Sully does not explain how this is relevant to anything except additional security hassles for airline employees (the added safety value of screening pilots and flight attendants hard to establish; the only pilot who has been accused of intentionally crashing an airliner is Gameel Al-Batouti, the first officer on EgyptAir 990 and he did not have a weapon).

Back Home in Texas

The next chapter starts out with "I grew up in a home where each of us had our own hammer. When I think about the work ethic and the values that carried me through life, and through seven million miles as a pilot, I think at times about the hammer my dad gave me as a boy."

If this is what it takes to forge a child's character, our society is doomed. What does the average American parent give a kid these days? A tool so that he can be useful to other household members? Or a mobile phone, handheld video game machine, and personal video player?

Sully appreciates his dad for putting the family before work. "People have asked if my dad is a hero. I never really thought of him in those terms. To me, he was just a great role model on a lot of fronts. ... He was always a perfect gentleman, a man who almost never raised his voice. I don't recall ever hearing him say a disparaging word about anyone." Sully's mom was pretty much perfect too.

It is sad to learn, at the end of the book, that neither of Captain Sully's parents lived long enough to see their son land Flight 1549 in the Hudson and all of the passengers walk out of the plane.

The Gift of Girls

This chapter starts off with a family ski trip to Lake Tahoe. Captain Sully notices some things about his daughters for the first time and feels that he has been missing out because he is away 18 days per month. "When I go over that day in my mind, I think of the girls, but I also think about Lorrie. I know what a loving mother she is. ... I marvel at how she has created such a wonderful home life for our family. I am fortunate to be her husband and to have her as the mother of my children."

Airline employee courtship is covered in grim detail. Sully was previously married and divorced. Lorrie is an employee in the marketing department. They meet at a work event and go to Bennigan's for a drink. A few dates later, things get a little physical: "I'm glad I kissed her. I'd do it again. (In fact, I have.)"

Regarding the first baby's first diaper change, Sully says "I was proud to be the first of us to get to do that."

Military Years

Sully started at the Air Force Academy in 1969. "Only 844 of the 1406 who arrived that day would end up graduating." He was hazed by the upperclassmen: "It was designed to tear us away from the easy, the comfortable, and the familiar. It was intended to refocus our perspective and reset our priorities. For all of us, it would no longer be about 'me', but about 'us'." People wash out because they aren't good at running in the 7000' air of Colorado Springs. The cadets are enticed with a 45-minute aerobatic ride in a T-33 jet trainer: "My stomach was rock solid through all of it."

Sully graduated in 1973, while President Nixon was still trying to make good on his campaign promise to end the Vietnam War. Sully spent the final years of the War getting a master's degree at Purdue and then in Air Force flight school and eventually learning to fly the F-4. By the time he completed training in 1976, the Vietnam War was over and Sully was stationed in England.

Sully discusses a lot of military flying accidents. All of them could have been survived if the pilots had been more careful or more skilled. But how can a pilot reader learn from this? Presumably we are already trying to be careful and skilled. Sully describes "the most harrowing flight of my military career", a potential flight control problem in an F4, but then it turns out that the plane was flyable with no special technique back to a long runway in Las Vegas. The reader never learns what, if anything, was wrong with the plane.

Sully quits the Air Force because he isn't a good enough self-promoter and politician to rise through the ranks. In peacetime, he says, being a good pilot is not sufficient.

Early Airline Flying

Sully went out to look for a job in the Jimmy Carter "malaise" year of 1980. He was lucky to find one as a flight engineer on a Boeing 727, earning $200 per week (about $27,000 per year in 2010 dollars). Sully is too modest to say this, but the B727 flight engineer job is supposedly the most challenging in the airline world. The airline has some fiendishly complex systems. It took Sully eight years to make captain at PSA. Sully praises the seniority system of promotion because it is better than the alternatives of "favoritism, cronyism, and nepotism."

Showing Up for Life

Sully talks about the effect that watching the news about Kitty Genovese had on him as a 13-year-old (coincidentally, she lived and died in Kew Gardens, which is today a very popular place for JFK-based airline employee crash pads). He vowed not to become like those indifferent onlookers in Queens. Sully celebrates the New Yorkers who helped out after the Flight 1549 landing in the Hudson, himself for helping a pedestrian injured by a car in Danville, his daughters who raised puppies for Guide Dogs for the Blind, and himself for helping out USAir passengers from time to time.

Anything is Possible

Sully tells a story about how he and his wife made extensive plans for a September 1999 hike to the top of Mt. Whitney, the highest peak in the Lower 48, and back down in one day. He "plans the flight and flies the plan", having established a turnaround time of 1 pm. They were still an hour from the peak by then, so they turned around and came back down. This story is followed by a Hopi Indian poem.

Pilots and Automation

This chapter starts off by relating the legendary resourcefulness of the crew of United 232, who suffered a complete loss of flight controls and yet managed to land and save the lives of 184 out of 296 people on board.

The point of the chapter is that the fancy automation reduces workload when everything is working, but when stuff really goes wrong the pilot still needs to understand the airplane systems and fall back on basic airmanship. Sully bemoans the fact that the public no longer idolizes airline pilots. (I like to say that being an airline pilot is the hardest job that most people think is trivial.)


Sully: "For a pilot, LaGuardia is a more challenging environment than the average airport. ... at LaGuardia, the runways are short and surrounded by water. So you pretty much have to nail your landings, since there's not a lot of extra room if you don't." The flight attendants that I used to fly with referred to the airport as "La Garbage".

The action resumes on Page 206

On page 206, Sully picks up where he left us on page 37, in an Airbus climbing out of LaGuardia with Jeff Skiles at the controls and the machine functioning perfectly. Sully says "there was no time for either of us to react [to the birds]. ... It sounded like the worst thunderstorm I'd ever heard back in Texas [as the birds hit the plane]." The smell of burning birds fills the cabin and the sound of failing engines reaches the cockpit. Sully notes that "the failure of even one engine had never happened to me before" (in his nearly 20,000 hours of flying).

Sully matter-of-factly notes that he immediately switched on the auxiliary power unit (APU), but does not take enough credit for this singularly inspired act, for which he would have received no simulator training (the true airline pilot doesn't touch any switch until after finding and reading the appropriate emergency checklist). With the engines spinning down, the Airbus was a few seconds away from losing sufficient electric power to run the hydraulic pumps. Without hydraulics there would be no flight controls. There is an emergency backup ram air turbine (RAT; a window fan basically), but it doesn't run the whole airplane and is not something you'd want to rely on.

Sully then says "I knew immediately and intuitively that I needed to be at the controls and Jeff needed to handle the emergency checklist." Sully explains that typically the first officer would fly while the captain made executive decisions, but says that "I had greater experience flying the A320 ... Also, all the landmarks I needed to see in order to judge where we might go were on my side of the airplane. I also knew that since Jeff has just trained on the A320, he had more recent experience practicing the emergency procedures. He could more quickly find the right checklist..."

Sully corrects the common misconception that his experience as a glider pilot helped him fly the powerless Airbus. He says that the most helpful experience was careful energy management in big jet airliners.

The Quick Reference Handbook into which Jeff Skiles had to dive contained 150 checklists. It was designed to have tabs sticking out, but "in a cost-cutting move, US Airways had begun printing these booklets without the numbered tabs on the edge of the pages." (The three different types of jets that I have flown have all had a QRH with tabs.) This cost Skiles some extra time.

Sully explains his decision process in not attempting to return to LaGuardia: "I knew that if I chose to turn back across this densely populated area, I had to be certain we could make it. ... I also considered the fact that, no matter what, we'd likely need a serious rescue effort. I knew that the water rescue resources at LaGuardia were a tiny fraction of those available on the Hudson between Manhattan and New Jersey. ... On my visit to the [Intrepid aircraft carrier] museum a few years earlier, I had noticed all the boat traffic there.""

Sully praises the primary air traffic controller with whom he was talking, Patrick Harten, for improvising a big conference call among all of the tower controllers at airports where Flight 1549 might conceivably have landed. He left the landlines open so that they could hear his transmissions to the bird-struck plane. Harten also refrained from interrupting Sully and Skiles too often.

Sully explains what sealed his Hudson river decision: "I could see the area around Teterboro [airport] moving up in the windscreen, a sure sign that our flight path would not extend that far."

Do not let this guy on your airplane or helicopter

"Forty-five-year-old Eric Stevenson [a passenger on 1549] was experiencing an awful feeling of deja vu. On June 30, 1987, he had been on Delta Air Lines Flight 810, a Boeing 767, traveling from Los Angeles to Cincinnati. Shortly after takeoff, as the plane was climbing over the Pacific before turning east, one of the pilots had mistakenly shut down both engines. He had done this inadvertently because of the way the engine control panel was designed and the proximity of similar engine control switches. The plane began descending from 1,700 feet ... Then just 500 feet above the water, the passengers felt a massive burst of thrust... The pilots had restarted the engines. The flight continued to Cincinnati, its cabin littered with life preservers."

The Impact and Fly-by-wire

Sully did take some advantage of the advanced Airbus flight control systems described in Fly by Wire: "I began the flare for landing. I pulled the sidestick back, farther back, finally full aft, and held it there as we touched the water." (In an airplane with conventional controls, he would have needed to modulate the amount of aft stick.)

Skiles retains a cool head and runs the evacuation checklist after landing, the most useful parts of which are pushing the fire switches on the engines and APU. This closes fuel valves and lessens the chance of a fuel spill and fire. Sully does a useful walk up and down the cabin and then followed procedure by grabbing the emergency locator transmitter (ELT) and handing it to a passenger in a raft. The ELT is designed for small planes that crash in the Alaska wilderness and helps rescuers find them. If you drop a $60 million Airbus into the middle of the Hudson on a bright sunny day, the radio signal of the ELT is not likely to be needed.

The Controller

"While we were on the river, Patrick [Harten], the [air traffic] controller who had overseen our flight from his post on Long Island, was relieved on his position and invited to go to the union office in the building. ... Patrick was secluded in that office with a union rep. ... He was told he couldn't leave the facility until the drug testers came to take a urine sample and do a Breathalyzer test. This is standard procedure for controllers--and pilots, too--involved in an accident."

The Presidents

Despite the fact that the river landing had completely upstaged George W. Bush's farewell address to the American people (more), W. called Sully before his clothes had dried and the two chatted about their shared experiences as Texans and jet fighter pilots. President-elect Obama called to invite Sully to the inauguration and Sully accepted on condition that the entire crew and their families be invited as well.

What's Missing

Sully does not talk about alternatives to what he and Skiles did. The map of the flight path near the end of the book makes it clear that they could have turned around and landed at LaGuardia if they had started the turn immediately after the bird strike (Fly by Wire mentions that crews in simulators were able to do this ex-post facto). Sully does not mention any regrets at not having started the turn earlier.

Sully does not shed light on how bad a distraction was the constant barrage of terrain, traffic, and landing gear warnings from the Airbus's fancy computers. The cockpit voice recorder transcript, reproduced at the end of the book and here, reveals that the final word spoken in the cockpit, prior to the master switch being turned off, came from the Airbus itself: "retard".

Sully does not talk about any recreational flying that he has done in recent decades. He says that he loves to fly, but does not mention any glider flying, teaching young people (his flight instructor certificate expired in 1999, according to the FAA), wanting to learn helicopters or seaplanes (he does not hold these ratings, according to the FAA), aerobatics, etc. Except for family and side-business time, it is all airline flying, all the time, except for one Cessna rented for the Mt. Whitney hike.

Perhaps airline pilot should not be a full-time job

Stepping back from the book for a few days and pondering, one is left with a portrait of a guy who had mixed feelings about his career and life. So do the other airline pilots profiled in the book and so do most of the other senior airline pilots that I know. Flying a fancy jet is a lot of fun. But 18-22 days per month away from home and living in hotels, year after year, decade after decade, wears a person down and destroys much of his or her enthusiasm for the job. One meets a lot of bitter and disappointed pilots who keep their jobs because they aren't sure what else to do. Labor negotiations tend to be acrimonious because senior pilots want to get paid a fortune to do a job that many folks would be happy to do for free, at least for a few years. Why do they need to earn so much? To compensate for what has become for them a routine and annoying job.

Sully wasn't bitter or disappointed, but he was trying to run a couple of small businesses in addition to flying the Airbus and never had enough time to devote to the enterprises. Nor did he feel that he had enough time at home with his daughters. He also sounded frustrated with and exhausted by a lot of irrational and customer-unfriendly company policies. There are a lot of important jobs in our society that could be wonderful if done intensely for a few years or part-time for many years, yet we force people to do these jobs full-time or not at all. Look at all of the burnt-out schoolteachers who remain in the classroom until they can collect their full pension. How many would still be enthusiastic about teaching if they did not have to teach full time?

Sully's 20,001st hour of flying time did not make him significantly more proficient. It sounds as though he would have enjoyed life much more if he'd done three 4-day trips per month (away 12 days instead of 18) and had a complementary second job. Unfortunately that isn't possible with today's U.S. airlines and in many cases would be precluded by union agreements.


If you want to feel inadequate about your life, marriage, personality, skills, upbringing, attitude towards others, etc., Highest Duty is a great book to read. If you're a married man, do not let your wife read this book. She will rush out, buy a gun, come home, and shoot your pathetic substandard inadequate self in the head.

Aviation nerds will struggle to pore through 340 pages to find interesting items relating to the Hudson River landing.

On a Kindle

Highest Duty: My Search for What Really Matters contains only one illustration that is helpful to understanding the story and therefore would be almost as good on an electronic book reader as in print. There are some photo plates, but they are mostly snapshots of individuals or news photos of the crashed Airbus that are readily available on the Web.

About the Reviewer

Philip Greenspun holds Airline Transport Pilot and Flight Instructor certificates. Greenspun has flown 50-seat regional jets out of LaGuardia Airport, but always with both engines spinning! Greenspun has studied and taught engineering at the Massachusetts Insitute of Technology.
Text and photos Copyright 2006-2010 Philip Greenspun.