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Book review: 'Highest Duty: My Search for What Really Matters'

HIGHEST DUTY: My Search for What Really Matters, by Capt. Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger, with Jeffrey Zaslow. William Morrow, 352 pp., $25.99.

An airplane crashes, killing its hapless pilot, in the opening pages of "Highest Duty," Capt. Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger's highly readable, if by-the-numbers, memoir.

The first of many disasters and near-disasters recounted by the hero of the so-called "Miracle on the Hudson," it is chilling, yet instructive, for Sully - and for anyone who's ever flown in an airplane.

Surveying the wreckage of that Piper Tri-Racer, with its blood-spattered cockpit, the 16-year-old fledgling pilot realized: "flying a plane meant not making mistakes," and, also, "One simple mistake could mean death."

On Jan. 15, more than 40 years later, Sullenberger (better known by his nickname, Sully) would avoid fatal errors when US Airways Flight 1549 suffered a bird strike after a routine takeoff from New York's LaGuardia Airport. Calling upon a lifetime of experience - including 19,700 hours of flying time and service as a crash investigator - Sully guided the engineless 150,000-pound Airbus to an emergency landing in the icy waters of the Hudson River. It's no spoiler to say that all 155 passengers and crew survived, and that Sully became an American hero.

Thanks to meticulous attention to white-knuckle detail by Sully, writing with Jeffrey Zaslow, "Highest Duty" doesn't lose thrust just because we already know its outcome (even if the writing style can be as methodical as one of Sully's checklists). Predictably, Sully recounts his training in the Air Force Academy near Colorado Springs, Colo., where he objects to the cruel tradition of hazing, and his subsequent service as a post-Vietnam Air Force fighter pilot. A professional airline pilot since 1980, he was back flying an airliner three days after Sept. 11, 2001.

The narrative really takes off during the disaster stories, and with Sully's first-person account of Flight 1549. For instance, we learn that the air traffic controller at the New York Terminal Radar Approach Control in Westbury really believed that Sully was doomed, that the crippled plane would spin and break apart when it hit the water.

Though Sully often comes across as Capt. Perfect (going the extra mile to help a stranded passenger, for instance), he exposes a few warts, mostly of a domestic nature. His flying career shortchanges his family (he's often absent from home for days on end), and he tries to impose his rigorous cockpit mentality at home. Digressions about wife Lorrie, and their decision to adopt two girls, break up the tension between airline war stories.

About the so-called miracle: Sully contends that experience, pilot judgment and dedication to airline safety, not some deus ex machina, are what actually saved the day. As Sully tells it, "My entire life led me safely to that river."

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