Highest Duty: My Search for What Really Matters by Chesley B. Sullenberger and Jeffrey Zaslow

I just finished reading Highest Duty: My Search for What Really Matters by Chesley B. Sullenberger and Jeffrey Zaslo. Overall, I thought the book was very good. I knew going in that the book did not totally focus on Flight 1549 and the ditch in the Hudson River.  The book is about the way aviation and flying has been part of Captain Sullenberger's entire life, starting at a young age and continuing to present day. The book, also, gives a detailed account of Flight 1549. He also shares story after story that shows how he became the man he is today, from helping his father build their house as a child, to climbing Mt. Whitney with his wife, Lorrie.

The beginning of the book starts with his love of flight and flying and mentions key moments that started his love like looking at military jets in the sky approaching low and fast, going on his first commercial flight with his mother, his first flights with his instructor and his first solo flight.

The book continues to talk about his father and mother, and how they had a large part in shaping him into who he has become. His father was a hard worker and I got the sense that he was kind hearted, as illustrated in his dentist practice. His parents instilled in him hard work and a love of family.

A couple of chapters were dedicated to Captain Sullenberger's career in the military. Although these chapter were interesting, I found myself skimming these pages. He shared amazing and harrowing stories and I have the utmost respect for him and his follow service mates. But, since I relate more to commercial aviation I sped through these pages.

Scattered throughout the book were stories about memorable flights he had over the years. Once he had to divert due to an ill passenger. The passenger died. Once, he flew Ellen Degeneres and he commented on how comical the First Officer was towards her when he spoke with her. He also mentioned how he was nearly suspended without pay when he refused to push back from his gate until all seats were filled with standby passengers. He also beautifully describes one of his most perfect approach and landing in his career. Also scattered throughout the book are details upon details about past air disasters, and his thoughts on them.

Once the book started to detail Flight 1549 and the ditch in the Hudson River, I was captivated. He gave a thorough account of each and every thought that went through his head, from first seeing the birds to when he climbed into the ferry boat. Each and every move had great detail and you really get the sense of what it was like to be in the cockpit and then to be rescued. Even little things were detailed, like when one passenger sitting in the exit row over the wing actually read the instructions on how to open the emergency exit (pull in, then out) when he heard the birds hit. On the other side of the plane someone struggled to open the door since he did not read the instructions to prepare.

I was also captivated by the air traffic controller, Patrick, who assisted Flight 1549. Before this book, I had not read anything about him. But, now I have an understanding of his point of view, which was a real eye opener. I now understand how stressful being an air-traffic controller must be. What a rollercoaster of emotion Patrick felt, as he thought the plane crashed instead of what happened in reality.

The book nears the end with snapshots of some of the passengers on Flight 1549 and their stories of the flight. It also showcases a couple people who wrote to or spoke to Captain Sullenberger after the ditch, from a survivor of the Holocaust who watched the events unfold before him as he stood on his apartment balcony, to Captain Haynes who crash landed a crippled aircraft in Sioux City, United Flight 232. One of the most moving stories was regarding the daughter of the First Officer who crashed into the Everglades, ValueJet Flight 592. She spoke at length with Lorrie, Captain Sullenberger's wife. The daughter has never found peace with her father's crash, always thinking that the last moments of his life were of sheer terror. When, in actuality, he was probably so focused on the task at hand that he did not have any other thoughts. Captain Sullenberger mentioned that he did not think of Lorrie, or his daughters Kate and Kelly, in those few short minutes. Not that he didn't care for them deeply, it was just that he was so focused on his task at hand that his mind did not wonder. This finally gave peace to the daughter of the ValueJet First Officer. This moved me to tears. These stories demonstrate how people become connected with one another through this event.

The book ends with Captain Sullenbergers life since Flight 1549. What an amazing story of how one event can change your life in an instant.

Being the wife of a pilot, I found the book to touch me in ways that only a pilot's wife can be touched. I found myself relating to Lorrie a lot in the book. As a matter of fact, I actually found myself crying at times because certain stories were an absolute foreshadowing of my life. For instance, Captain Sullenberger mentions certain aspects of his daughters life has slipped through his fingers since he is gone so much. I hate to think that family life is missed since a pilot travels so much, but that is the reality of the job. He also gives high praise to Lorrie who keeps their household run so well. Then there was the story when their pool was leaking and Captain Sullenberger was about to push back from the gate. All he could say to a frantic Lorrie on the phone was "call the pool guy". I have a similar water story, but mine involved a sump pump overflowing.

Another underlying tone that Captain Sullenberger addresses throughout the book is the way commercial aviation has changed over the years. On his first commercial flight he wore his Sunday best. Now people dress as if they are going to the gym. He also addresses how pilots used to be a step down from an astronaut, and now they are a step above a bus driver. He suggests that children no longer seem as interested in flight, as evident when they walk onto a plane totally focused on their ipods and video games and walk right past the cockpit. He also mentions how pilots are no longer fed on flights due to cost cutting, and packing a lunch of sandwiches and a banana is common place. He also mentioned pensions being cut and wage concessions, which is reality now. I like how real he is throughout the book.

Overall, I really enjoyed the book. What an amazing chain of events. What an amazing outcome. What an amazing story.


  1. Joanna thanks so much for your thorough review of this book. I didn't even realize this book was available. After reading your review I've decided this is a book that both me and my pilot husband need to read.

  2. Very interesting. I think I'll really enjoy the book. Thanks for the review.


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