Friday, October 2, 2009

Welcome Back Sully

U.S. Airways Captain Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger and First Officer Jeffrey Skiles flew from New York to Charlotte yesterday. This wouldn't be such a big deal except that the last time these two men tried to fly a plane from New York to Charlotte, they hit a flock of geese and had to land in the Hudson River. In fact, four of the passengers who were on the plane for the so-called "miracle on the Hudson" also flew the route yesterday, with at least one reserving the exact same seat she sat in on that fateful flight in January.

This is the type of story we, as a society, just eat up. It's heartwarming. It has a hero everyone can love. It has symbolic significance. What's not to love? What it means to the six people who reunited for the flight yesterday, however, is somewhat more complicated.

It took Skiles 3 months to complete mandatory requalification training and return to flying. It took Sullenberger 9 months. And this is for a flight where everyone survived. (To be fair, Sullenberger also apparently wrote a book and got a promotion in there, so it was not all trauma recovery time, but still.) Sully may have been a hero, but he was a stressed out hero. Despite the fabulous outcome, this incident was unbelievably scary and he has to have thought he was going to die and take his passengers with him.

Returning to the thing you were doing when something awful happened is hard. If you've ever had a serious car accident, you know that getting in a car again is not trivial, and driving one again is even worse. At least one of the flight attendants on flight 1549 has said she will never return to work. The closer an activity approximates what you were doing when something bad happened, the harder it's going to be. Yesterday's flight was both a reunion and a triumph. It represented not only these six people getting back to the business of living life, but also overcoming the final hurdle of putting themselves in the position that was so traumatizing in the first place.

Captain Sullenberger got a huge round of cheers and applause when he introduced himself over the loud speaker before his flight yesterday. He certainly deserved it. People on the flight were quoted as saying they felt incredibly lucky to have him in the cockpit. At the same time, I have to admit to just a moment's hesitation at the thought of being on that flight. On the one hand, it is a triumph. Sullenberger said he wanted to complete the flight that went down with his co-pilot, and he finally got a chance to do that. On the other hand, I'm not sure how calm I would feel about being on a plane knowing that the pilot and co-pilot were putting themselves, for the first time, back in a situation which so clearly was associated with trauma for them. What would happen if this environment triggered some bad reactions from them? But it didn't -- they were as ready as they needed to be -- and I welcome them back to the sky.


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Naomi Zikmund-Fisher
is a clinical social worker, former school Principal and a Crisis Consultant for schools and community organizations. You can learn more about her at
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