Friday, January 16, 2009

Pilots are Amazing

Of course you've all read about Chesley B. Sullenberger III, the U.S. Airways pilot who brought his damaged plane to a landing on the Hudson river, waited while all the passengers and crew were evacuated, and then walked up and down the plane twice to make sure everyone was out. Incredibly, it appears that everyone was rescued and no one was seriously injured in this emergency landing.

But did you know that pilots have been pulling off amazing feats such as this one since before airplanes even existed? In Life on the Mississippi, Mark Twain relates his own experiences becoming a Mississippi riverboat pilot. Much of the book is devoted to the incredible knowledge that such pilots had to have -- they had to memorize the entire river, which had no lights, buoys, or other navigational aids in those days. But the following notable passage speaks to the courage and honor that pilots displayed when their boats were in distress:

"One of the pilots whom I had known when I was on the river had died a very honorable death. His boat caught fire, and he remained at the wheel until he got her safe to land. Then he went out over the breast-board with his clothing in flames, and was the last person to get ashore. He died from his injuries in the course of two or three hours, and his was the only life lost.

The history of Mississippi piloting affords six or seven instances of this sort of martyrdom, and half a hundred instances of escapes from a like fate which came within a second or two of being fatally too late; but there is no instance of a pilot deserting his post to save his life while by remaining and sacrificing it he might secure other lives from destruction. It is well worth while to set down this noble fact, and well worth while to put it in italics, too.

The 'cub' pilot is early admonished to despise all perils connected with a pilot's calling, and to prefer any sort of death to the deep dishonor of deserting his post while there is any possibility of his being useful in it. And so effectively are these admonitions inculcated, that even young and but half-tried pilots can be depended upon to stick to the wheel, and die there when occasion requires. In a Memphis graveyard is buried a young fellow who perished at the wheel a great many years ago, in White River, to save the lives of other men. He said to the captain that if the fire would give him time to reach a sand bar, some distance away, all could be saved, but that to land against the bluff bank of the river would be to insure the loss of many lives. He reached the bar and grounded the boat in shallow water; but by that time the flames had closed around him, and in escaping through them he was fatally burned. He had been urged to fly sooner, but had replied as became a pilot to reply--

'I will not go. If I go, nobody will be saved; if I stay, no one will be lost but me. I will stay.'

There were two hundred persons on board, and no life was lost but the pilot's."

Hats off to Captain Sullenberger, and to all pilots who get us safely to our destinations and who keep their heads in emergencies.

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