Some Pilots’ Pilots…

John Glenn died on December 8, 2016 – four years ago today – at age 95. Chuck Yeager died yesterday at age 97. I didn’t know either of them, but they were models for the kind of pilot and person I aspired to be. Extraordinary men who led remarkable lives and became legends in their own lifetimes.

It’s difficult to write anything original about them. Their biographies are exemplary and posted everywhere, but what strikes me today is the contrast between these citizen heroes and the cowards currently serving in Congress and the White House. These two giants were courageous, quiet, hard-working Americans who answered the call to service, delivered in multiple wars and later in peacetime. John Glenn served 24 years as a US Senator from Ohio following his career as a Marine Corps fighter pilot and astronaut.

My reflections on Glenn and Yeager were reinforced by a podcast I listened to over the weekend. Chuck Rosenberg, former Chief of Staff at the FBI and US Attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia, is now an NBC contributor with a podcast of his own called The Oath. There, he interviews interesting people, some you’ve heard of and some you haven’t. Last week’s was an hour and a half with Captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger, another pilot legend.

“Sully” is not an unknown quantity. Following his flawless “miracle on the Hudson” landing, he became everyone’s favorite authority on aviation matters, and his no nonsense straight talk was always reassuring and refreshingly honest.

The Rosenberg podcast interview, like the one he did with Special Counsel Robert Mueller this week, is less about his newsworthy history and more about how he was prepared for his decisive moment in the spotlight. It’s an inspiring story. Like John Glenn’s wife Annie and Joe Biden, Sully stuttered as a child. He overcame the handicap through hard work, by speaking slowly in front of a mirror, and with the wholehearted support of his family. I remember Colin Firth doing the same in The King’s Speech, the Oscar winning film about Queen Elizabeth’s father George VI.

I’ve been an admirer of Sully’s since “the miracle,” but not so much for his airmanship which was perfect but for his leadership following the water landing. He calmly directed his crew and passengers to disembark using the evacuation slides, and when they were all safely off he made a final walk-through of the cabin to make sure no one was left behind. He was last person to deplane. That’s what calm, courageous leadership looks like.

In the interview with Rosenberg, he details his normal childhood in Denton, Texas, where there was an Air Force base nearby. Even as a child he was fascinated with aviation and determined to learneverything he could about it. His first piloting experience, as a teenager, was in a taildragger that required him to hand crank the prop and then hop on the wing to get to the cockpit.

The podcast is particularly interesting when he talks about the lessons he learned as a child and later at the Air Force Academy. Solid values of honesty, hard work, attention to detail and devotion to duty.

Unlike John Glenn and Chuck Yeager, neither Sully nor I served in a war. I flew the same airplane as John Glenn (F8 Crusader) but left the Marine Corps before the Vietnam War expanded. Sully, who flew the F4 Phantom, didn’t finish flight training until the war was over.

Chuck Yeager is credited with 11.5 kills in WWII and John Glenn shot down 3 MIG-15s in a ten day period in Korea. Neither Sully nor I were tested in battle. Sully’s test came in 2009 when a flock of Canada geese flew into the engines of his Airbus A320-214. Shot down by a flock of geese. How humiliating…but a life-or-death emergency, nevertheless. Sully’s quick thinking and superb airmanship saved 155 lives that day. I was never tested in these ways.

I loved the Marine Corps, just as Sully loved the Air Force. They gave us unprecedented opportunities to fly the world’s best fighters, but there is life after the military and we both moved on to commercial aviation.

After a movie was made about the first group of astronauts, Chuck Yeager was asked if he thought he had the “right stuff.” His answer was simple, “All I know is that I worked my tail off learning how to fly and worked hard at it all the way. If there is such a thing as the right stuff in piloting then it is experience.” The same might have been said by Colonel Glenn, Captain Sullenberger, or even me if asked the same question.

These three are aviation legends. All three are leaders who demonstrated courage and leadership under stress. Going back to the beginning of this essay…note the contrast between these three and the cowards now occupying the White House and Congress. Are the Republicans in Congress so fearful that they won’t stand up to an ignorant sore loser who’s undermining our democratic institutions and the integrity of our elections?

It’s shameful. C’mon now; mask up, do your homework, pay attention to the details, and learn to work with your colleagues. We need leaders, men and women, who know right from wrong and are not afraid to call it out? Trump wanted his Roy Cohn; I want my Chuck Yeager, John Glenn, and Sully Sullenberger. Mask up folks. Get to work. This may take a while.


  1. Substitute the word “fly” for the word “career,” and many could claim they’d done the same thing: teachers, doctors, artisans. Everybody works their tails off – even the politicians in on trump’s planned coup. Yeager, Glenn and Sullenberger did theirs with courage and honor.

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