A Much-Needed Hero for Troubled Times

Pilot's action in landing jet in NYC waters and saving lives should inspire those dealing with their own struggles, experts say

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By Steven Reinberg
HealthDay Reporter

FRIDAY, Jan. 16 (HealthDay News) -- When the "Miracle on the Hudson" pilot eased his crippled jetliner into the frigid waters off New York City on Thursday, he did much more than save the lives of 155 people on board.

US Airways Capt. Chesley B. "Sully" Sullenberger III gave the battered American psyche a much-needed boost amid wave after wave of unnerving news -- from the unraveling financial system, soaring unemployment and record home foreclosures, to the ever-present threat of terrorism and the reality of war, mental health experts say.

"The country always needs role models who perform heroic acts -- it boosts people's sense of humanity. It gives people confidence that there are truly selfless and competent people out there," said Alan Hilfer, director of psychology at Maimonides Medical Center in New York City.

Heroic acts like Sullenberger's also reinforce the sense that some things can go right when so many things are going wrong, Hilfer added.

"At the moment, that is especially necessary," he said. "Individual acts of heroism or professionalism inspire people to be able to recognize that there are well-trained, knowledgeable people whom we can depend upon."

Hilfer added that people need heroes to inspire and to distract them, especially during tough times.

The crash landing of Flight 1549 came after the pilot took off from La Guardia Airport and reportedly hit a flock of birds, which left both engines without power. Sullenberger then deliberately turned the plane over the Hudson River and landed it in the water. After passengers exited to water ferries standing by, according to news reports, the captain walked through his plane twice to make sure everyone was out.

James E. Maddux, a professor of psychology at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va., thinks people who tend to be optimistic will be inspired by Sullenberger's heroism, while those who are less optimistic probably won't.

"It is probably incorrect to say that an event like this is universally uplifting in the same amount for everyone," he said. "Happier people are the people who tend to take this kind of information and pull some meaning out of it."

More optimistic people are also people who think that, even though uncontrollable events happen, someone with knowledge, experience, skill and a steady hand can seize control of seemingly uncontrollable circumstances, Maddux said.

"People who tend to be more pessimistic will pass it [Sullenberger's actions] off as dumb luck," Maddux said. "They may just miss it and say: 'This shows how dangerous flying is.'"

Maddux sees an analogy between the pilot's heroism and the hope many Americans have for President-elect Barack Obama.

"This pilot with experience and knowledge and steady nerves, seizing control of what was a situation beyond anyone's control to prevent, was able to bring it to a safe, happy end," he said. "That is similar to the way that many people have come to view Barack Obama -- as a person with intelligence and knowledge and steady nerves and a steady hand."

But Maddux added that the emotional boost provided by Sullenberger will probably be fleeting.

"It's a single event. It's the kind of event that even if it provides an uplift, it's probably going to be temporary, because then other things take over the headlines," he said. "These kinds of things become quickly forgotten."

Sullenberger, 57, was perfectly suited for a hero's role. A one-time Air Force fighter pilot, he's one of the nation's leading aviation safety experts -- and a certified glider pilot.

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For insights on coping with challenging times, visit Mental Health America.

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