Not all of aviation's heroic acts happen on the battlefield.
- By George C. Larson
- Air & Space magazine, March 2000
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In 1987, Neerja Bhanot, a Pan American senior purser, was swept up in a terrorist hijacking in Karachi. The 17-hour ordeal ended in a frenzy of gunfire and explosions. Bhanot shielded some children from almost certain death and in so doing was mortally wounded herself.
Although the stories of these air disasters and the names of those who sacrificed their lives tend to fade with time, there was one airman whose actions will be remembered as long as the sarcophagus that was the Chernobyl nuclear power station stays radioactive. In 1990, Anatoly Grischenko died of the effects of the withering radioactivity to which he was exposed while flying a helicopter into the inferno to dump radiation-absorbing materials onto the molten reactor core. He did not survive long enough to attend the banquet where he would have been given the award.
The honorees who are able to attend the ceremony sometimes bring with them visible signs of the personal sacrifices they have made. In the aftermath of a fiery crash of a China Airlines jet at Manila, flight attendant Wang Wen-Hua helped 135 passengers off the airplane before exiting herself. The airplane was by that time completely engulfed; its evacuation slides had burned away. Wang jumped to safety but was terribly burned and required extensive plastic surgery. Jack Enders, president of the foundation when Wang received the award in 1980, recalls, "As the award was handed to her, the audience rose to its feet, tears streaming down--it was quite a moment." The foundation also helped Wang find medical care to repair the scars left by the fire.
In all, 33 individuals and one group (the helicopter crews who performed the original "Towering Inferno" rescue of victims of a 1972 high-rise fire in Sao Paulo, Brazil) have received the Heroism Award. In some years, mostly during the 1990s, no award was made because no act was deemed sufficient to meet the exacting criteria spelled out in the foundation's charter, which states that the judgment "is based upon degree of personal risk involved, the nature of adverse conditions and complicating circumstances, and the extent to which the act of valour was willingly beyond the normal line of duty and performance level expected of the individuals involved." What the bestowers of the sword seek to recognize, in other words, is not an act of self-preservation but an act of self-sacrifice. Wrestling a machine back to earth in a successful deadstick landing may constitute commendable airmanship, but it is no act of heroism.
Aviation has become safer over the last few decades, and the need for acts of courage on the part of airline crew members may continue to decline. Rescue flights such as Corey's may characterize the future winners. The number of lives saved has little to do with the quality the Graviner Sword is meant to honor. For anyone who has difficulty grasping its essence, just put yourself aboard Jim Corey's helicopter on that stormy night last May. Bub Niche, the surveyor who owes Corey his life, understands it perfectly.