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The high and the mighty
January 21, 2009 - Rick Chatenever
When I was a kid, my favorite movie was “The High and the Mighty.” Written by aviator-author Ernest K. Gann, the 1954 thriller starred John Wayne and Robert Stack as a pair of pilots struggling to keep a crippled airliner flying from Honolulu over the Pacific until it could make landfall in California.
With Wayne’s character whistling the haunting theme song, a cabin full of great actors portrayed the terror of facing death head-on. Between the courage and cowardice, the ways some characters froze and others rose to the occasion, the movie’s flight plan wove precariously between profound emotion and over-the-top melodrama.
Indeed, a stricken plane flying through a dark night of thunder and lightning was one of the repeated images for the rollicking 1980 parody “Airplane!” With sounds of faltering propellers belying the fact that it was a jet, the rapid-fire satire ushered in a whole new movie genre. Suddenly, there was nothing that couldn’t be a joke. The more serious and sincere in real life, the funnier the punch line or sight gag.
Memories of “The High and the Mighty” crossed my mind last week as I watched surveillance-camera footage of powerless U.S. Airways Flight 1549 skipping like a rock over the frigid waters of New York’s Hudson River.
Images from that day still haunt: Passengers in orange life jackets standing on the plane’s wings like penguins on ice floes as New York rescue workers respond. Boats surround the plane, amazingly still afloat. There’s an eerier, other-worldly sense of calm.
Calling it a miracle wasn’t an overstatement this time. It’s not often that a whole nation survives a near-death experience, passing together into the adrenalized afterglow. In the days that followed, as more details emerged, the accomplishment of the plane’s pilot, Chesley B. Sullenberger — “Sully” — continued to grow.
Landing the plane, with no loss of life and the most minor of injuries, was unbelievable enough. Doing it in the narrow river, with crowded cities on both sides, leaves forever unanswered the question of how many tens of thousands of innocent lives were saved that day.
The video images speak for themselves. But we are creatures who need stories and metaphors to make sense of our world.
And so, the sight of an airliner going down in the skies above New York City call up other memories. It was pure coincidence that the “Miracle on the Hudson” took place on the day former President George W. Bush had picked to give his farewell to the nation. It was just coincidence that the rescue and tales of survival rather than his address dominated that particular news cycle.
U.S. Airways Flight 1549 won’t replace those other numbers — 9/11 — that have set the agenda for our hopes and fears since 2001. It just turned the page.
How many scriptwriters in Hollywood do you suppose are working on the story? a friend wondered the day after it happened. But this isn’t a job for scriptwriters. And besides, laughing at “Airplane!” jokes is beginning to feel a bit tiresome.
Following the safe landing, the media swarmed like sharks chasing the elusive hero of the day. His wife and colleagues were as close as they got. They described the pilot as being as humble as he was supremely competent.
Two presidents called to thank him. Turning down media interview requests, one invitation he did accept was to attend the inauguration ceremonies Tuesday with his family and crew.
Images of the inauguration put everything else on hold this week. But amidst the glut of those images, we still need our metaphors.
The man who was sworn in as our 44th president is unlike any man who has ever stood on that stage before. Getting there was a chapter unlike any other in the book of our history.
The fact that some commentators listened to his amazing speech on Tuesday and found it not as great as others he has given show just how high he has raised the bar.
My metaphor for the day has to do with miracles. They are already part of our new legacy. Unreasonably, we expect nothing less from this man.
Like other cultures, we love our heroes. But as our new president reminded us Tuesday morning, what is called for now is to become those heroes ourselves.
According to reports, when he was contacted by still President-elect Obama, the pilot of U.S. Airways Flight 1549 had a simple reply.
“Me and my crew, we were just doing our job.”
I guess it just depends on how you define miracle.
• Contact Rick Chatenever at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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