by Diane Vacca

Hurtling toward catastrophe—certain death for himself, the 154 lives entrusted to him and a good many others, were he to crash into the densely packed houses below—Capt. Chesley B. Sullenberger III had the experience, the cool and the brains to make a series of decisions that left the passengers and crew of Flight 1549 alive and well, though shaken and chilled. Landing in a heavily trafficked section of the river, the crippled plane drew immediate attention as all nearby ships immediately converged to aid with the rescue. The pilot's feat left New Yorkers rejoicing in what many hailed as a miracle, reviving hope despite the general despondency about the economy.

The drama that unfolded last week resembles
in microcosm the challenges facing the new president. The captain of Flight 1549 reacted swiftly and appropriately to the crisis because he kept his cool while relying on his intelligence and experience. The new captain of the ship of state, though not so experienced, has demonstrated again and again the range of his intellect and his ability to stay calm while making decisions of consequence. On Tuesday, he assumed control of a perilous situation, daunting in its complexity. He will depend on a savvy team to implement his decisions, just as Sully relied on his crew. The downed plane also benefited from the "ad hoc flotilla" of nearby vessels. Ferry passengers took off their coats and covered the victims they hauled out of the frigid river.


David Watta, 42, a vice president at a travel media company, was headed home to New Jersey on the Weehawken Ferry as the plane went down. His ferry immediately changed course and headed toward the crash site. Shortly after it arrived, he said, passengers from the downed flight began to come aboard the ferry.

"We were holding people, hugging them, reassuring them, holding their hands, warming them with our body heat," he said.

"We provided cell phones so they could call loved ones. A lot of them were so cold that they couldn't dial, so we dialed for them. I would say that everyone on the ferry were heroes for the day. They were all civilians who stepped up in a time of need to help their fellow citizens."

Obama has told Americans that surviving the economic crisis requires that everyone pitch in and make personal sacrifices. He asked Americans to join him in a day of service on the Martin Luther King, Jr., holiday preceding his inauguration. Sully and his co-pi.jpglot, Jeffrey Skiles, twice walked through the sinking airplane to make sure no one was left aboard before they too abandoned ship. Good leaders never demand more of their followers than they themselves are prepared to do.

If the professionalism and grit of an airline pilot can wrest deliverance from catastrophic double engine failure, then faith in the new president's ability to lead the country out of crises that threaten not only America's way of life, but its very survival, can't be unfounded.

Trained as a
medievalist, Diane Vacca taught medieval literature, Spanish and Italian at
several universities before becoming a journalist with specialties in politics, the arts and New York City.
Her work can also be found at Talking Points,, and New York City weekly Chelsea Now, where she covers everything from education and public housing to landmark
designation and the arts. She lives in midtown with her husband, Salvatore Vacca; they have two children
and three grandchildren.

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  • lisa January 27, 2009 at 11:24 pm

    great article! A heroic, heart warming story about “Sully” to start the new year. Our new commander in chief has many more daunting challenges ahead…
    YeS we can!!

  • Terri January 23, 2009 at 2:13 pm

    Terrific Article. Loved the comparisions of 2 great men. Time will tell if Obama lives up to his promises and our expectations. Let’s all do our part in keeping the ship afloat along with our dreams of an improved economy and an end to terrorism.

  • Erica January 21, 2009 at 10:46 pm

    Great article! Thanks for sharing. I do hope Obama is as heroic as Sully. If his rise to power and ability to unite and inspire are any indication, there is a strong basis for optimism.