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The Maersk Alabama Captain vs. Sully Sullenberger

Who's the bigger hero: Maersk Alabama Capt. Richard Phillips or Chesley B. Sullenberger III, the pilot who landed US Air flight 1549 on the Hudson River in January?

It's tempting to say, no brainer: It's Sully. He saved 155 lives. Phillips only managed to not die while sitting in a lifeboat with four pirates for five days. Smelly, sure. Not heroic.

But consider this: Phillips put his life at risk to save the lives of his crewmen. After the pirates boarded his ship, he reportedly told crew members to lock themselves in a cabin. Then he surrendered to the pirates, offering his life for his crew's, just like heroic sea captains of yore.

Sully saved 155 lives, indeed, but he was doing his job as "airline pilot." Is it in the job description of container ship captain to "give up your life for the lives of your crew?"

Both men pulled off heroic deeds in the public spotlight. Each deserves all the accolades he is getting and will get.

But which was the bigger hero?

Let's hear your thoughts.

Frank Ahrens is a Post business editor/reporter.

By Frank Ahrens  | April 13, 2009; 1:55 PM ET
Categories:  Ahrens  | Tags:  Frank Ahrens  
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my comment is there is no reason to compare heroes...

Posted by: HankC_57 | April 13, 2009 2:26 PM | Report abuse

I think this is an absurd question. Both men exhibited astonishing courage and competence in their chosen professions. Any attempt to claim that one is superior to the other is disrespectful to both of them.

Posted by: carolyn4driving1 | April 13, 2009 2:27 PM | Report abuse

Sheesh, I can't tell who's the bigger hero. Both men faced incredible odds and won out. Both men were highly trained to handle these situations. And both men's decisions saved the lives of every one on board their respective vessels.

Posted by: ecglotfelty | April 13, 2009 2:28 PM | Report abuse

The question is absurd. Trying to determine who is the bigger hero of the two denigrates the actions of both men.

Posted by: tlthwing1 | April 13, 2009 2:31 PM | Report abuse

??? What kind of question is that?

Posted by: pbassjbass | April 13, 2009 2:35 PM | Report abuse

This just points out that there are a lot of "BABY BOOMERS: who still have their "ACT" totally together.

Posted by: bigjonmustafa | April 13, 2009 2:56 PM | Report abuse

So you actually think that courage on that level can be measured and compared? What about all of the police officers and firemen that died in 911? Are they somehow 'less a hero' than these guys because? What? This is National Enquirer type BS and I expect more from the Wash post.

Posted by: Mitchavery7 | April 13, 2009 3:03 PM | Report abuse

There still unanswered questions.
Let's get the testimony of the captured pirate before we all jump on the hero bandwagon.
I'm not convinced yet that this whole episode was not staged.
Fact, Maesk is the largest cargo contractor for the US Defense Department.
Fact, this ship is based out of Norfolk, Virginia, the world's largest Naval Station; in fact, based on supported military population, it is the largest military station in the world raises these questions.
Fact, it was an all-American crew - very odd in the international cargo business due to wage costs. And these guys were mostly White clean cut, with military haircuts and wearing dark shades; except for one foul-mouthed sailor.
Fact, the ship was carrying a payload from Djibouti, a site known for previous CIA renditions which also gives me pause.
Fact, the president of MMA said on CNN that he was sure of the positive outcome and was already planning a welcome home party last Wednesday. Very cock-sure.
Don't go ballistic one me, reporters just haven't crossed on the Ts or dotted all the Is here.

Posted by: lockmallup | April 13, 2009 3:06 PM | Report abuse

Sully was more of a hero then the captain of the ship.

The pirates most likely would have let them all go anyways, they wanted the cargo, not the people.

Furthermore, I can't help but think this guy, the captain, did this take me for them just to get some attention.

But Sully landed a plane safely in the busiest city in the world, with no loss of life.

Sully 1, This guy 0

Posted by: dataport34 | April 13, 2009 3:08 PM | Report abuse

two different situations. sully had no choice,and his skill saved everyone on the plane. phillips had a choice,and he gave his life for his men. two blessings, one skill,the other,love. and whoever bothered to ask this is a moron.

Posted by: 12thgenamerican | April 13, 2009 3:31 PM | Report abuse

Both men deserve all the praise they got. Would you have the guts to do what they did?

Posted by: Jimbo77 | April 13, 2009 3:32 PM | Report abuse

It's way too far past April 1st for this kind of foolishness. This is a joke, right?

Posted by: LittleRichOne | April 13, 2009 3:43 PM | Report abuse

It doesn't matter - they are both the types of leaders we need again in this country, starting with eliminating our overpaid, whiny, selfish CEOs who bask in luxury and forget the true responsibility they bear for their firm and their employees, while their ships sink. The comparison could not have been more striking.

Posted by: newsreader2 | April 13, 2009 3:45 PM | Report abuse

How about the snipers? Most useful people we have seen in a while.

Posted by: tiredtaxpayer1 | April 13, 2009 3:46 PM | Report abuse

dataport wrote, "The pirates most likely would have let them all go anyways, they wanted the cargo, not the people."

Actually, the Somali pirates want something to ransom... not necessarily the cargo. A ship's crew, particularly the captain are valuable and typically in these situations a ransom would be paid to get them back.

Posted by: bill_four_oh | April 13, 2009 3:49 PM | Report abuse

Not to be too cute, but yes, it's a false comparison simply because these men were presented with different scenarios and they acted accordingly. Switch scenarios and see how the other reacts? I bet there wouldn't be much difference in the course of action, maybe do things differently with different results but done in the same spirit.

Posted by: jhtlag1 | April 13, 2009 4:03 PM | Report abuse

I'll pile on with the majority of posters here and agree - what a stupid thought-piece. Where should we text in our votes? Who would we want to see on Dancing with the Heroes? Seriously, what drivel. Troll of the week award.

Posted by: hitpoints | April 13, 2009 4:07 PM | Report abuse

what a stupid question, is there nothing better than this to spend time on?>

Posted by: fendertweed | April 13, 2009 4:11 PM | Report abuse

This is a stupid question but not for the reasons stated so far. If indeed the ship's captain gave himself to the pirates to save his crew he is a true hero. He was willing to sacrifice his life for his crew.

Sully certainly saved everyone on board his plane but I think it's obvious that he would have done the same if he was the only one on board the plane.

In short, Phillips knowingly made a sacrifice, the possible loss of his life to preserve others lives. Sully saved himself and others through his good piloting skills. It's apples and oranges. Both saved lives but only one put his life at greater risk to do so, the ship's captain.

Posted by: datdamwuf2 | April 13, 2009 4:12 PM | Report abuse

I agree with you. Sullenberger was just doing his job. He certainly did it exceptionally well and deserves abundant praise for that, but he did little above and beyond what was expected of him or what he needed to do to save his own life. Phillips, however, deliberately gave himself up as a hostage for the safety of his crew, and according to the Navy, he came damn close to being killed. This is, by tradition, the responsibility of ship captains, but I doubt his contract with Maersk mentioned anything about it. Sullenberger proved himself a superb pilot, but Phillips is the hero.

Posted by: wmw4 | April 13, 2009 4:12 PM | Report abuse

Funny...I thought several times over the weekend that Sully and the captain were cut from the same cloth - men of unquestionable integrity, well trained to do their jobs, but thinking first and foremost about the people whose safety was entrusted to them. Only in America.

Yeah, dumb question.

Posted by: thebrink | April 13, 2009 4:25 PM | Report abuse

WHAT A STUPID QUESTION. In keeping with some of the other comments, what about the guy who goes to work, day in and day out, to provide for his family, but never gets written about in a paper. Isn't HE also a hero?

Why must the media (I am referring to enquirer, tmz, perez hilton, etc.) always try to RANK everything?

Both men are brave and did good things; end of story.

Posted by: ewexler1 | April 13, 2009 4:47 PM | Report abuse


Who is the bigger jackass? Frank Ahrens or the Octomom?

Posted by: ewexler1 | April 13, 2009 4:49 PM | Report abuse

Comparisons are invidious. If this is the best interactive idea you can come up with, it's no wonder newspapers are going out of business all over the country. Why not just celebrate the competence and gallantry of both men, without begging for answers to dopey questions.

Posted by: hwerner1 | April 13, 2009 5:13 PM | Report abuse

Comparisons are invidious. If this is the best interactive idea you can come up with, it's no wonder newspapers are going out of business all over the country. Why not just celebrate the competence and gallantry of both men, without begging for answers to dopey questions.

Posted by: hwerner1 | April 13, 2009 5:14 PM | Report abuse

Phillips seemed a little stockier, and maybe even taller. I'd say he is the bigger of the two. Making Sully the 'smaller hero.' But until I see some height/weight comparisons, tough to say.

Why do we feel the need to rank everything, on our way to superlatives? Bigger, better, biggest, best, bets ever.

Posted by: bsp101 | April 13, 2009 6:07 PM | Report abuse

Sully saved 155 lives and Phillips saved 19 but the numbers don't matter- they both took huge risks to save the lives of others. Their heroics should appreciated seperately. Why would someone even ask people to compare the heroics of these two men? This is absolutely insane-were you trying to make everyone who read this mad?

Posted by: HannahBanana | April 13, 2009 6:14 PM | Report abuse

I agree with pretty much everyone else who has commented. Asking who is the biggest hero is not an appropriate question.

There's nothing wrong with the majority of the column, except that Sully did indeed go beyond the call of duty to risk his life to ensure everyone had evacuated the aircraft.

otherwise, i'd just say that this was a foolish way to conclude the piece.

Posted by: j762 | April 13, 2009 6:27 PM | Report abuse

I'm so happy to see all the comments about how silly this question is. It seems to me that by choosing one of these men over the other as more of a hero you are diminishing the accomplishments of both. Surely there must be something else for the business editor of the Washington Post to write about...

Posted by: AMS21 | April 13, 2009 7:13 PM | Report abuse

Looks like the author of this article is really running a popularity contest.

Anyway...who knows? Don't understand the relevance of this question, particularly since the question comes off as voting on which lives are worth saving or more important in this sense.

Posted by: ldsw | April 13, 2009 9:15 PM | Report abuse

Both men are heroes to the fullest of the degrees awarded to each given situation. Sully did his job and proved his flying capabilities and flying experience. What he did is and was and always will be of a heroic magnitude.
What captain Philips did was what only a strong man would do under his command. He could have just let matters go as they unfolded but he didn't, he gave an order to his men and they did what they were told.
Ahrens, if your trying to say that one of these two men are different types of heroes or if your saying that captain Philips is not a hero for doing what he did then your a small small man. Each situation has it's own merits. Yeah, Ahrens you're a very small man. Who in the hell are you to try to make one of these acts higher than the other. You know something what they both did deserves the highest of praise. You on the other hand deserve a slap upside the head for your belittling of the captain.
What you did here is pretty similar to what Obama did to the victims families after 9/11/2001 when he said that he will let the terrorists go from guantamino bay, and then to say that they would be let go within the United States, which then will let the ACLU, try to defend them. And then to say that we can no longer refer to them as terrorists, well lim him you are full of shyte and cowardess.

Posted by: mwolfen624 | April 13, 2009 10:37 PM | Report abuse

As others have put it, what an inane question. Both are heroes. The only observation I offer is that all is not wrong in an America that produces men of this calibre.

Posted by: rcarliii | April 13, 2009 11:02 PM | Report abuse

You are a business reporter and this is the question you post? I guess you couldn't be bother by that financial services meltdown thing.

This is what wrong with journalism today. I cannot believe the Washington Post is wasting neurons on such a stupid ass question.

Give up your space to some intern who is interested in writng about news that actually has an effect on people's lives.

Posted by: Johnniegreen | April 14, 2009 12:01 AM | Report abuse

I am just thankful to have a few recognizable individuals who are heroes. There have been too few lately of the sort to underline core values to our young people. Sully exemplified courage and calm when panic might have been the norm. Capt. Phillips shows an example of self-sacrifice, made all the more poignant because it came during Holy Week, when Christians point to the ultimate in self-sacrifice.

Posted by: LeeTaylorEMT | April 14, 2009 12:05 AM | Report abuse

This really is a pretty ridiculous question to pose.

Both men of course are heroes, as are the multitude of crews, passengers, armed forces, fbi, emt and medical personnel responding, coordinating, communicating and working in sync to bring about these inspiring and uplifting results.

What is your point.

Can't we just have some celebration of a job well done.

Posted by: jnolan4 | April 14, 2009 2:07 AM | Report abuse

Both men are heroes. This article is stupid and no one should try to say one heroic act is better than another. There were also heroes in both situtations that you do not mention. In the latter case, the 3 Seals are heroes, too. It is comforting to know we still have American heroes. They should be celetrated, not voted on!

Posted by: annnort | April 14, 2009 3:55 AM | Report abuse

Sorry typo. Meant celebrated.

Posted by: annnort | April 14, 2009 3:57 AM | Report abuse

The more appropriate question is "Who did more in service to mankind." The clear answer is Capt. Phillips. His actions have triggered the protracted but absolutely necessary process of dealing with high seas piracy. In the long run, I believe his display of selflessness and courage will energize world opinion and ultimately bring about a resolution of the threat of piracy, saving countless thousands of lives over time, not to mention billions in world commerce.

Joe LaRocca
North East (Erie County), PA

Posted by: jlar555 | April 14, 2009 5:41 AM | Report abuse

while a ridiculous question, it should be remembered that both Captain Sullenberger and Captain Phillips would have a tough time in this economy finding a job if they got laid off - based on articles that say those over 45 are out of work the longest of any age group. "Too much experience, you'll retire too soon, not trendy enough, maybe you'll get sick." And remember, ALL crew members on Flight 1549 were over 50. So, maybe "experience" will make a comeback...I don't know about others but I want my pilot to be ex-military, grey haired and quietly competent...think Al Haynes putting his aircraft down with no hydraulics. Shockingly, those over 50 have much to offer and these two captains can do much to emphasize that point.

Posted by: carolineC1 | April 14, 2009 6:54 AM | Report abuse

Surely, I thought, this is not for real--comparing the finer points of heroism in two extraordinary heroes as if they were in a bake off.

Posted by: persugram | April 14, 2009 8:00 AM | Report abuse

This is undoubtedly the stupidest question I've seen asked in any forum whatsoever. It shouldn't have been asked -- one can only speculate on what's in the mind of the reporter who asked it -- and anyone who suggests there's an answer is just as stupid. Kudos to those who have called this what it is: an idiotic waste of time and space.

Posted by: KySgt64 | April 14, 2009 8:07 AM | Report abuse

It's not a contest.

However, in the contest for stupidest question, this one wins the blue ribbon. Or the brown ribbon, as appropriate.

Posted by: Fourthfilos | April 14, 2009 8:33 AM | Report abuse

This is a moronic question. Let me answer it anyway. I love both Fuji apples & Clementine oranges. Don't compare them.

Posted by: sarvenk63 | April 14, 2009 10:41 AM | Report abuse

It's an absurd question to ask who's the greater hero. They're both admirable men doing their jobs responsibly. That we now live in a society where responsibility and accountability are once again valued and demonstrated, we can quit considering responsibility and self-sacrifice "heroism".

Wouldn't it be great if all Americans taught their children the kind of responsibility and accountability and serving others that these captains showed?

Posted by: cturtle1 | April 14, 2009 11:05 AM | Report abuse

And, by the way, the Navy SEALS were hardly bystanders! Let's admire them, too, for their competence and cool.

Posted by: cturtle1 | April 14, 2009 11:07 AM | Report abuse

This question is so stupid, it does not merit an answer. You should probably post this question to readers of Entertainment Weekly, better yet any tabloid magazine.

Posted by: onehitwonder | April 14, 2009 1:40 PM | Report abuse

First the Dog exclusive and now this? What happened to the paper of Watergate?

Posted by: Tobias1 | April 14, 2009 1:59 PM | Report abuse

This is a repub question. Did Bush put you up to this???
you can tell us! All people concerned did one hell of a job and it took a lot of team work all the way around Even most of the comments were great on this.

Posted by: babe2 | April 14, 2009 3:08 PM | Report abuse

they both are heros, but if you must choose......ask Bo - becuase "Bo Knows"

Posted by: tgrayson2 | April 14, 2009 4:15 PM | Report abuse

Just what I would expect from a cable news network website: gee, let's take something absolutely incommensurable and find a way to turn it into a football for the masses to kick around for an hour or two. Wouldn't have expected this from the WashPo.

Really, you've outdone yourself today with this one.

Posted by: harmiclir | April 14, 2009 4:37 PM | Report abuse

Might as well pile on - What kind a freakin' stupid question is that?

Posted by: jpdibuono | April 14, 2009 4:42 PM | Report abuse

These men were each willing to die for their fellow man. They deserve a much higher level of discourse.

Posted by: tmcproductions2004 | April 14, 2009 5:01 PM | Report abuse

When confronted with acts of truly heroic people, the least interesting question is which hero is more heroic.

How about focusing instead on what they did, and how we can encourage more heroic acts among the millions of potential heroic actors

Posted by: Mill_in_Mn | April 14, 2009 5:46 PM | Report abuse

This question ranks up there with who's the best quarterback or basketball player or golfer of all time. It's OK to have the conversation while sucking down some adult beverages, but don't pretend that there's a "right" answer. You can't compare athletes who play different positions or who played in different eras. And you can't conclusively differentiate the performance of individuals who performed at the highest levels of bravery and competence and achieved the desired results.

Posted by: doubleagle | April 14, 2009 8:56 PM | Report abuse

Let's thank God that men and not women were called upon in these 2 situations.

Posted by: ej_smug | April 15, 2009 8:25 AM | Report abuse

Oh I don't know. As long as we're at it:

Who is the best Washington Post blogger?

Posted by: NowIsTheTime | April 15, 2009 9:20 AM | Report abuse

bsp101: Ha! Wholeheartedly agree.

And to second the thoughts of almost everyone here, the Washington Post should be classier than this. Disappointed.

Posted by: Rational7 | April 15, 2009 12:24 PM | Report abuse

I was talking to a German friend of mine, who had spent a year in the USA as an exchange student, who observed that in the USA being better, bigger, faster etc. seems to matter very much no matter what the subject or occasion. But is that the point of being thrust into a position/circumstance that makes a person do heroic things? Both men are heroes in their own right and so is the person who saves one teenager from addiction by being compassionate or hospice worker who cares deeply about a person facing the end of life. Some heroes get noticed publicly but there a legions who do not. Let me suggest that everyone give thanks for every hero out there and be content that such people exist.

Posted by: evsanten | April 15, 2009 12:34 PM | Report abuse

I'm dumbfounded as to why anyone would ask this ridiculous question, and equally dumbfounded that the Washington Post would publish it. As others have said, it's what I'd expect from a sensationalist cable "news" or "entertainment" website, but not from the Post. Disappointing.

Posted by: matriot | April 15, 2009 1:16 PM | Report abuse

Putting this sort of ridiculous question up for debate is a new low for this paper. What an insult the to the decency and intelligence of the readership! It's genuinely refreshing to see it so roundly condemned.

Posted by: MontaraCA | April 16, 2009 1:17 AM | Report abuse

I propose this comparison: Which column is a more absurd, this one or George Will's tirade about denim?

"Let's hear your thoughts."

Posted by: MontaraCA | April 16, 2009 1:36 AM | Report abuse

Ha! Accomplished professional and wearing jeans right now, actually.

Posted by: Rational7 | April 16, 2009 12:41 PM | Report abuse

Who cares?

Posted by: HeddWyn | April 17, 2009 1:07 AM | Report abuse

The hero angle probably ties in with readers' self-examination on what they would do. Otherwise, I found a more interesting analysis on piracy at both and at, an interesting site that the first one has in its blog roll.

Posted by: singingmountains | April 18, 2009 9:37 PM | Report abuse

Everyone involved here are heroes. It appears simple with the hudson river saga!
It was execution on the money!!
The Mearsk incident was much broader and involved many people including the commander in chief. The execution was superb. In both cases we got lucky, i.e. preparation met opportunity!!If personal bravery and sacrifice were the only criterian, Mr. Phillips would win out!!

Posted by: YouSee | April 18, 2009 11:42 PM | Report abuse

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