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The Miracle as a Metaphor: What We Can Really Learn From Flight 1549

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"Pilot Hailed for 'Hudson Miracle,'" said the BBC.

"Miracle on the Hudson," declared both MSNBC and the New York Daily News.

A dear and very spiritual friend said to me yesterday, "The Hudson River crash is a sign." I know she didn't mean we should start flying in wetsuits. What she meant is that tale of heroism, courage, and professionalism is a metaphor for hope, a sign that the American dream works when we have the right leader, the right team spirit and right cooperation among people.

Let's examine the evidence. Moments after a rare aviation phenomenon -- a "double strike" of birds against the plane -- U.S. Airways flight 1549 lost engine power but remained flyable, giving the pilot time to assess the situation. In many bird strikes, let alone a double one, the result is catastrophic, but flight 1549 soared on.

The pilot then landed the plane in the Hudson River, a feat the Wall Street Journal proclaimed as "one of the rarest and most technically challenging feats in commercial aviation." Not only did everyone aboard survive the impact, which some witnesses likened to that of a rear-end collision in an automobile, but the plane stayed afloat just long enough for everyone to be rescued. In a press conference hours after the accident, Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced that most passengers never even touched the 36-degree water, which on that 20-degree afternoon could have caused hypothermia in less than eight minutes. The hero of the day, Capt. Chesley Sullenberger III, masterfully landed his plane and, putting his passengers first, walked through the cabin twice to help everyone out before he himself evacuated the sinking plane.

There were so many chances for this event to go horribly wrong, but thanks to the skill of the pilot, the calmness of the passengers, and the dedication of the rescue teams, the story had a joyous ending, one that has people in awed elation around the country.

How auspicious that it should occur on the eve of our new president taking office. It's as if the country has donned a new spirit. "This is the best day ever!" said one of the survivors, as she was carted away in the back of an ambulance. It wasn't so long ago that that very same woman might have been asking a watching audience if anyone knew a good lawyer.

The signs are there: this is our future, if only we choose to follow the example set by Capt. Sullenberger, his crew, and the other heroes of flight 1549. The reason that every single one of the 155 passengers and crew survived is because of the work of individuals -- not some miracle or stroke of luck. From the skilled pilot right down to the divers still looking for the lost engines, everyone worked as a team. Instead of bemoaning their fate, they acted and, in the case of the pilot and rescue teams, had prepared their whole careers for such a moment. And let's not forget another great "pilot," Mayor Bloomberg; under his direction, New York City knows how to handle an emergency.

Times are tough. Our economy has taken a triple bird strike and we've lost all engines and a wing. We are engaged in two wars, our unemployment rate is ratcheting up... shall I continue? But we can land this plane. We will have cuts and bruises to show for our efforts -- there's no way to avoid that -- but we will survive if we follow our new leader, if we work collectively for the common good and if we realize that Captain Sullenberger and his crew have shown us how the American people can survive a crash.

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