Sully (2016), directed by Clint Eastwood

sullyAs principal of a high school, I would often interview teachers for positions in the school. Resumes often were superb, but the person had no teaching experience. I remember one candidate in particular who took pride in the fact that he had a perfect SAT score. I did not hire him because there was no empirical evidence that he would succeed, let alone survive, in a high school classroom.

The difference between someone who possesses sterling academic credentials and someone who possesses exceptional real world experience is at the crux of Sully, the film that depicts the famous “miracle on the Hudson,” in which the pilot, Captain Chesley Sullenberger, landed a commercial jet, US Airways Flight 1549, carrying 155 people on the Hudson River in New York with no loss of life.

The opening scenes of the film depict the investigation of the incident by the airport authorities, who question why Sully chose to land on the Hudson River rather than simply fly back to LaGuardia Airport from which they had just departed. They argue that computer simulations of the flight that replicate the large flock of birds that flew straight into the plane’s engines indicate it was possible for it to return to LaGuardia safely.

Through flashbacks, we see the flight as it unfolded in real time. It becomes clear that the flight simulations do not consider the human factor in making the right decisions under pressure. When the group listens to the cockpit recordings, they understand how critical the human component is in making good decisions at stressful moments, when life and death are at stake. Sully reminds them: “No one warned us. No one said ‘You’re going to lose both engines at a lower altitude than any jet in history. But, be cool, just make a left turn for LaGuardia like you are going back to pick up the milk.’ This was duel engine loss at 2800 feet followed by immediate water landing with 155 souls on board. No one has ever trained for an incident like that. No one.”

Jewish tradition shows great respect for the learning that one acquires over a lifetime. The Bible exhorts us to stand up before the aged, even if the old person is not necessarily a scholarly man. We simply revere age because it tells us that a person has experienced much in life, and that experience makes him a valued and respected member of society.

Rabbi Noach Weinberg writes: “People have some idea that there’s nothing to learn outside of a university. We think: What does the average person on the street know? This attitude is destructive because it stops us from learning the many bits and pieces of wisdom that are available. Just the fact that someone survives from day-to-day, and copes with life’s obstacles, means he’s picked up valuable tips on living.” Moreover, Rabbi Weinberg observes: “We assume that unless a person is a recognized scholar, or successful business person, he lacks wisdom. But the truth is, anyone who’s had life experience possesses great wisdom. You may be shocked to find out how much your parents know about the issues you’re grappling with right now. As Mark Twain said, ‘I spent four years in university, and I was amazed at how much wiser my father got while I was away!’ “

Sully’s many years of experience as a pilot enabled him to do extraordinary things when an emergency demanded a quick response to a life or death scenario. Textbook learning alone would not have prepared him for dealing with such an unknown and unpredictable crisis. Only through the crucible of life experience, for which there is no substitute, do we acquire the practical wisdom that enables us to overcome life’s challenges.

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One response »

  1. Rabbi,
    Your insights are so wonderful. This is a movie that I have seen. I also remember the actual event. Capt. Scully overcame this life or death experience, while facing death of himself, his crew and 155 passengers had the ability to make a very quick decision from his accumulated knowledge and experience as a pilot AND glider pilot as well to save everyone’s life is an amazing story. Also, o am additionally proud of him for not leaving the plane until he was sure that all passengers were off the plane.
    He is a hero in my mind.
    Your thoughts on this are very wise.


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