I read Captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger’s book in manuscript a few months ago. The chief impression it left me with wasn’t so much his heroism or his natural gifts as a pilot as his homelier virtues–his work ethic and his decency, his abiding sense of responsibility, his solicitude for his family. Not all born aviators are exemplary people. Charles Lindbergh, for example, was an anti-Semite (not to mention a bigamist).
The other thing that came through is how much bigger Sully is than his job. His pay has been slashed over the decades; his pension was dissipated in bankruptcies and buyouts. He describes taking a bag lunch on board his flights because employees aren’t allowed to eat airline fare; he confides that pilots have to go off the clock when a plane is held up at the gate. An airline pilot, he says, is just a glorified bus driver nowadays, except bus drivers get better benefits. Michael Moore blogged about airline pilots he met who had to moonlight to make ends meet.
One is a substitute teacher. The other works in a coffee shop. You know, maybe it’s just me, but the two occupations whose workers shouldn’t be humpin’ a second job are brain surgeons and airline pilots. Call me crazy.
Which adds a note of poignancy to what happened to those two Northwestern pilots, who were trying to figure out how to schedule their desperately-needed hours and now most likely will never fly again. Not that I’m excusing their irresponsibility. It’s horrifying. But if we want our pilots to be heroes, maybe we shouldn’t treat them like they were in some low-paying, low-status profession like, I don’t know, school teaching or soldiering or policing, and start treating them like they were doing something as important and valuable to society as trading Collateralized Debt Obligations.