Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger, the pilot who successfully landed an airplane in water, and kept everyone onboard alive, is a Hero. So how long until he ruins it? Or until we ruin it for him?
It's cynical, but it's true. There's already a Miracle Airplane Seat for sale on Ebay. One of the plane's passengers, a fashion photographer of some kind, is looking to cash in on the story. ("Nico is highly traumatized by the incident, but is available to speak through his life and business partner, Don Rodrigues, for any interviews.") The waterlogged wreckage of the Airbus passenger jet wasn't even out of the water yet, and already a small celebrity was born. But Sully, the austere white-haired pilot who wrestled the whole Miracle into existence, will now be tempted by the double-edged rewards we lavish on the famous and infamous alike: the television appearances, the book deals, the reward money and endorsements.
As we learned from the melancholy story of Wesley Autrey, the subway hero who rescued jumped onto the tracks to rescue a seizure victim, turning to recognize the adoring, grateful public can begin to seem like an obligation, a calling that one suddenly stumbled into after acting on training, or rawest impulses, in times of great intensity. They change you, these experiences, they mutate your genetic code into the stuff of real, tangible superheroes. Or at least everyone else might see it that way.
Autrey's case was a little different, yes. It was quicker and smaller and more deeply personal. One human being risked his life to save another, jumping in front of a speeding train. Sully, on the other hand, was "simply doing his job." But I think the scope and setting of the incident trumps the seeming simplicity of this crazy, workmanlike thing that Sully did. It's like some insane, hopey, new administration New York wish.
An airplane, flying low, near downtown. Something was definitely wrong. It must have, for some, felt all too familiar. Too frightening a reminder of the imperfect past. But then it splashes down in the Hudson, everyone miraculously survives, standing surreally on the disappearing slips of the wings. From certain angles, it looked like they were walking on water. And the big bad culprit? Birds. Just birds. Nothing scarier (which, kinda, makes the whole thing even more terrifying) than a simple flock of geese. Here are our new tragedies, America! Why, they're not tragedies at all! And Sully, he's the one who made it all happen, who let us catch our breath again, who let us sigh with relief. We are now a nation of competent, Everyman Heroes.
Sully hasn't accepted anything or appeared smiling on any TV show just yet, but that flood is coming. And as principled and private a man as he might be (we don't know that, but the hero myth sort of demands that he is), such attention is hard to resist. "I think you might have to realize that the construction worker-he died on the 2nd," Autrey's beloved niece reportedly told him when he expressed a desire to just go back to work, to return to normalcy. "There's a new you. The public wants this new you." How do you turn down that call to duty?
And, more importantly, can you stop it from ruining you?
We'll probably throw Sully onto Oprah's stage, have him pen (with ghostwriter) Chicken Soup for the Worried Pilot's Soul, we'll name a day after him, and we'll give him money and (gulp) plane trips to anywhere in the world. There will be parades and he can snip ribbons and things. (He's already The Person of the Week!) And the further we go, the more separate the man will become from the actual act. The sad thing is, even if he doesn't want it, we'll likely force it on him anyway. Because it makes us feel good. And, like Autrey, it may become a little too bizarre, a little too much to bear. It must be a strange and heady experience to have some act you committed in one tiny moment, one quick flash of adrenalin, come to inform the next months and years of your life. How can you ever come to grips with that bizarre, warped sense of time? Maybe you don't.
I guess what I'm trying to say is that let's try not to overplay this too much. We need heroes, I know. But they don't always need us. To put such fierce, public demands on someone who's already done a good thing is selfish and predatory. It's exploitation. Hopefully we'll keep it simple. A small ceremony with US Airways and Bloomberg. A single TV interview. If he starts to ask for other things, then, well... fuck it. Give him what he wants.
I'm trying to imagine his perspective, in the moments after. What did he feel like as he scrambled out of the cockpit, watching the boats in the distance speeding toward him. Did he feel like a hero, like the rescuer of some big undefinable thing? Or was he simply happy, humbled and grateful, just to be alive. I imagine he was. Glad just to be breathing and whole, to be heading home. To have escaped this heavy machine that had once threatened to crush him.