Friday, January 16, 2009

The Curious Case of Flight 1549: Maybe the Best Metaphor for 2009 We Could Hope For


From my Huffington Post blog.

It started for me with a "CNN Breaking News" email at 12:57PM California time. I never fail to click these, and in a post-9/11 world I always hold my breath too. Whenever I read the first line, I'm hoping I don't see words like explosion, killed, or hostage. But yesterday, it was the type of news alert, that in the age of ubiquitous commercial travel, we all dread: "Emergency officials are responding to a downed US Airways plane in New York's Hudson River."

Fuck. My heart raced as I turned on the news and thought about my mother who had just sent me a text saying, "I'm on!! I'm on the plane!!!" I knew she meant she was on her delayed Southwest flight from Los Angeles to D.C., but I still shook at the thought of her flying at that moment. It would be a few minutes before I learned that flight 1549's passengers were presumed to all be safe too.

What? But how? All of them? There's no way all of them got out safely. Is there?

I am not a person of faith, but I can go for some cosmic interference every now and again, even if it can be explained by simple physics and not actually the "hand of god." I spent yesterday day marveling at news, eyewitness and survivor reports, while sharing thoughts with Facebook friends. But as I reflected, the events and exchanges soon got me thinking: What if yesterday's "miracle" was a perfect metaphor for 2009?

Yes, the NTSB will report what happened on the afternoon of January 15, and it will make perfect sense. But on the day George Bush said his last goodbyes to the nation. Less than a week before the president-elect takes the keys to the White House. And as each news report peels back another layer of this tear-inducing onion of an economic mess, maybe the story of this jet crash is exactly the real life fable we needed seared into our nation's consciousness.

I don't say this lightly, nor to I mean to cheapen what must have been a harrowing experience for some to watch, much less experience first hand. But the poetry of the event is just too perfect. Plane crashes kill and maim. Many of us shroud our fear with a couple Xanax or a few Vodka rocks. And it's a justifiable, if not entirely rationale, fear. You don't need to even fall out of the sky to die in a plane crash, a fuselage skid on the tarmac can take lives. But a ditch into near freezing waters of a fully loaded and fueled commercial airliner and zero fatalities? It doesn't happen. It literally hasn't happened. Ever.

So what if this water landing--an event that was never supposed to end well, but did--serves as an example of the fate that awaits us this year? I know, get my head out of my mumbo jumbo ass. But bare with me for a second. You couldn't have imagined it all turning out this way when you heard the news today. It never does, no matter how hard we pray it will. People don't just walk away. As a group. Unharmed.

In 1993's Fearless, Jeff Bridges plays a plane crash survivor who, realizing he's somehow cheated his most terrifying fear and lived, is conflicted about how to lead his life. The crash of flight 1549 might not change our attitudes and make all of us exactly fearless, but it should at least make us thankful. And it could surely be a template for the actions and reactions we could hope for this year.

Maybe the questions many of us have about how we'll fair in 2009 and in what shape financially, spiritually, emotionally, is somewhat answered in the events of yesterday. Think of how that plane landed at just at the right location on the Hudson River. An area where ferry traffic was thick (Another miracle in that no boats were hit in the plane's descent) and commercial dock boats were in constant movement around the piers.

Within seconds of the picture perfect ditch, boats were making their way to the site like arms extending from the shore. Is that the kind of quick response and compassionate, holistic rescue package the country's economy truly needs? Is it the one we can hope for in the new administration? If that's the ailing and anxious American public standing on those wings, waiting for help, then could they have asked for a better rescue? A more caring show of support?

And what about that Pilot, Captain Chesley B. "Sully" Sullenberger? It would be easy to take my metaphor to mean he must be Barack Obama. Maybe. But this isn't even about politics--just like it wasn't about that inside the crippled plane. Nobody cared what party the pilot belonged to as they watched the water fall towards their windows. They were just thankful--and praying--a competent and composed individual was at the helm. After the crash, the pilot walked the length of the plane, not once, but twice, to ensure that no passengers were left aboard as the water rose. Everybody gets out alive he thought to himself. Doesn't matter how we all got into this mess, we are going to get to shore.

The captain wasn't alone. The ferry passengers who reached out to victims. The firefighters and police. The guy on the flight who yelled, "women and children first," were all part of the rescue effort. But they weren't all experts. The only common thread was that there was a crisis and lives--fellow citizens--needed saving. From all reports, there was no desperate dash or chaotic frenzy. It was the kind of order and calm you want from the person next to you. Not everybody for himself. But everybody for somebody else too.

In a few months, it's doubtful that whatever message there is in today's events will be as lucid to me. But maybe the metaphor is that we all fear the great crash. We're all unsure of that day where we may be asked to consider what we'd do when the pilot says, "Brace for impact!" Our country already has a catastrophic engine failure and none of knows how this flight will end. And what are we doing about it? Are we in the crash position? Are we hoping for a heroic pilot to land this sucker safely? Are we stoically wishing it--whatever it is--comes quickly and painlessly?

Or maybe if flight 1549 tells us anything, it's that it all might go well after all. Just like it did today. And we'll get out alive.

In one piece. As one family. All survivors.

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