Real Mistakes, Real Laughs:

Air bases were built on captured islands of Tinian, Saipan, and Guam but they were barley within the range of the long-range bombers.

(hope the bombadiers weren't on gluten-free diets)

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Monday, January 19, 2009

HOLDING OUT FOR A HERO: Heroic actions? Absolutely. A hero? Um, not so sure...

I’m a literal person, inept at verbal volleyball and frustrated by euphemistic rejection phrases like "not right for our list" or "not sure how to market this." I hate using slang and improper grammar to craft authentic-sounding dialogue in fiction. Forget about using words like fantastic, fabulous, awful, and lousy in their literal sense (of a fantasy, of a fable, awe-inspiring, and lice-ridden); only 19th century novelists get away with that. We also have a habit of freely dispensing weighty words that overstate reality, such as love and hate. Another example is the complimentary (and I don’t mean gratis) label hero when used to acknowledge admirable, brave deeds.

Because of this definition, we proclaim the word hero without regard for its literal connotation. Take US Airways Captain CB Sullenberger, America’s newest hero. And why not? He handled an abruptly deadly situation with skill, responsibility, and bravery.

Actually, he was doing his job. Does performing one’s paid employment with superlative skill constitute heroism?

There’s no question that Captain Sullenberger’s command of the endangered flight saved not only the lives of his crew and passengers, but residents of the New York/New Jersey areas over which an attempted airport landing might have crashed. His successful – and consequently heroic – actions were the direct result of extensive, ongoing training he receives against this and other types of emergencies.

The way I see it, a hero acts not just beyond the call of duty but completely outside of expectations. Soldiers in battle all act heroically, but the infantry officer in Vietnam who throws himself onto a live enemy grenade to save the lives of his platoon is a hero. The bystander who impulsively dives into the freezing Potomac River to rescue a disabled survivor of the January 1982 Air Florida crash is a hero. So is the newly-wedded husband who makes himself the target of the great white shark bearing down on his wife while SCUBA diving off the Great Barrier Reef. The northern California school teachers, who put their jobs on the line during the naive 1970s by reporting the horrendous child abuse of 12-year-old David Pelzer by his mother, are no less heroes. These people were not obliged nor expected to do what they did, but their actions saved many lives, sometimes at the expense of their own.

Make no mistake; I am not trivializing Captain Sullenberger nor the consummate skill he displayed in averting disaster. I am married to a retired commercial pilot and hold an FAA aircraft dispatcher’s license; I well understand, probably more than most people, the extent of the captain’s deadly scenario and its implications. He had mere seconds to decide if ditching the powerless aircraft was a better prospect than attempting to reach an airport. He defied the odds by setting down the huge jet in the frigid Hudson River in one piece, with no loss of life. He was the last person to leave the foundering aircraft, only after several trips up and down the cabin aisles to ensure that all passengers and crew had evacuated. In short, he did everything an airline captain is supposed to do.

Commercial pilots have been perceived as making big bucks for nothing more than wearing a spiffy uniform to push buttons in the cockpit. In truth, the attractive salaries are a type of insurance against the unthinkable: that one flight gone awry when the pilot earns his pay. Thankfully, most aviators spend their entire careers quietly collecting on the premium Captain Sullenberger paid January 15, 2009. It isn’t likely anyone will henceforth question the value of a commercial pilot’s heroic responsibilities.


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