What Makes a Hero? What Makes a Pro?

Just doing your job does not a hero make.

In an article "Town giving a hero's welcome to Hudson River pilot," Associated Press reports

Friends and neighbors of the pilot who safely landed a crippled jetliner in New York's Hudson River planned to give him a hero's homecoming on Saturday.

The mayor and other officials were preparing to greet US Airways Pilot Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger and his family with a ceremony on Danville's town green.

Sullenberger, who lives in this San Francisco Bay Area suburb, has been lauded nationwide for gliding Flight 1549 to an emergency river landing on Jan. 15 after both of the plane's engines were disabled following a collision with a flock of birds. All 155 passengers and crew members were rescued.

We at Scragged have no desire whatsoever to take anything away from Capt. Sullenberger - we'd fly behind him any time, any where so long as he's willing to take the plane up.  We admire his cool under pressure; he's amply supplied with what Chuck Yeager called the "Right Stuff."

The "Right Stuff" is an unspoken code of coolness, persistence, and competence that carries the true professional through dangerous situations.  When both his engines failed at low altitude over New York City, Capt. Sullenberger kept his cool, made the right moves, brought his plane down safely in the only landing area he could reach give his aircraft's glide ratio of 10 feet forward for each foot of altitude lost, and made sure that all his passengers got out safely.

We were nonplussed, however, by the talking heads' fixation with calling Capt. Sullenberger a "hero."  They want to build audience; they know that talking about heroism is more likely to get people to stay tuned, but Capt. Sullenberger doesn't meet the dictionary definition of hero.

He was in the front seat of the plane, his very own neck was on the line.  He did a wonderful job in a hairy situation, he exercised the ultimate in professional competence such that no lives were lost, but does that make him a hero?  Is he a hero?  Or is he a pro who did his expected duty extremely well?

Heroism is a Choice

If I leave a burning building, does that make me a hero, or does my getting myself out of there demonstrate common sense?  If, on the other hand, I'm outside a burning building and go in to bring others out, I might be a hero depending on the danger I faced.

We took an informal poll of people who were willing to talk about the incident.  A fascinating pattern emerged when we spoke with flight attendants, pilots, and passengers.

Younger folk accepted "hero" as in "sports hero."  If you do your job spectacularly well, you're a hero, not merely a pro, even if all you did was what you're paid to do.  We'd prefer the term "clutch player" to describe a professional who does his job when you need him to come through.  It's hard to imagine any situation where athletic excellence is truly heroic, even if younger people seem to constantly link the two.

Older people believed that there's an element of choice in heroism.  Capt. Sullenberger's neck was on the line, he had to get the plane down to save his own life, he had no choice.  He exhibited the pinnacle of professional coolness and skill, but there was no heroism involved because there was no other way to save his own skin.

Military folk pointed out that by definition, heroism requires conduct Above and Beyond the Call of Duty, ABCD, as in choosing to throw yourself on a grenade to save your friends' lives.  Getting everybody on the ground and out of the plane was Capt. Sullenberger's duty, that's his job, that's what he and his flight attendants signed up to do.  His entire crew did their job well in trying circumstances and deserve honor, commendation, and recognition but they weren't heroes.

One older passenger said, "The captain decides whether the plane goes up, he scrubs the flight if he's in doubt.  He can't do that very often or he'll get fired, but he has the 4 stripes, it's his call.  If he takes me up, he's promising to get me back on the ground and out of the plane or die trying."

As we see it, Capt. Sullenberger is a consummate professional who did his duty supremely well, but he's no hero.

We've commented on the decline in the number of Americans who're willing to do their duty.  It seems that the younger generation regards doing one's duty as optional to the point that anyone who actually does what they've promised to do is a hero.  There are many sports museums which are called the XX Hall of Fame.   Should we refer to them as "Hall of Heroes?"

Has it gotten to that point?  Is Capt. Sullenberger a hero, a pro, or both?

Will Offensicht is a staff writer for Scragged.com and an internationally published author by a different name.  Read other Scragged.com articles by Will Offensicht or other articles on Society.
Reader Comments
I don't know about the pilot but the PASSENGERS aren't heros or pros. They're a bunch of opportunistic bums.


"After the crash, US Airways sent passengers a letter of apology, a $5,000 check to assist "with immediate needs" and reimbursement for the ticket."

And they're all saying that the 5k isn't enough.

Do these morons know what the odds are of surviving a plane crash? Do they understand what VERY good work their pilot did bringing the plane down? It's not even a question that it was a freak, act-of-God accident and not the fault of the airline that brought the plane down.

Man, I'm sick of this entitlement-drunk country! Every possible inconvenience is an excuse to soak someone for millions.

Why don't you miserable, ungrateful fools send the airline a thank you note, send the pilot a bottle of wine and get back to your lives with a cheer in your step for the second chance God has given you.
January 27, 2009 11:40 AM
Yeah, really... and live your life knowing that after surviving that, statistically your odds of being in another major accident are VERY VERY low.... :)
January 27, 2009 12:01 PM
@twibi The passengers aren't opportunistic because the company decided to send them money. In your quote it didn't say they asked for any money. It is my understanding that airlines often provide for logging and what-not when a flight is canceled. Five thousand may be excessive but good PR is worth it for the company.

The pilot is not a hero. I have to agree with everything that the article said. Being a hero is about choice, about doing more than could ever be expected of you. I also believe that to be a hero you have to risk life and/or limb during the 'heroic' act. It may be above and beyond to stay late at work and get that report done, but its hardly heroic work.
January 27, 2009 12:12 PM
The link I included tells the rest of the story.

Many of the passengers are saying it's not enough. When asked "what IS enough?" they refuse to comment saying "they don't know yet". That's the classic American I-can-smell-the-coming-lawsuit way of answering.

The NADAF is also already chiming in on behalf of the passengers that 5k isn't enough.

I think it's great that US Airways gave them a packet of perks. As you said, it's good PR. My frustration is with the passenger's immediate rejection of that because they see early retirement in their future.
January 27, 2009 12:21 PM
of course, this is true, but the *reason* it is true is because no one know what a "pro" is anymore. normal workers are so lazy, stupid and ill mannered that when someone is just being a pro, businesses have to recognize them as something else, something much bigger. if everyone were pros as they should be, the bar for "hero" would be a lot higher.
January 27, 2009 12:27 PM
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