“Sully,” The Movie, Features Wisconsin Pilot

by Dave Weiman
Published in Midwest Flyer – Dec 2016/Jan 2017

Now almost eight years following the emergency landing of an Airbus A320-214 in the Hudson River on January 15, 2009, the incident resurfaced with the release of the motion picture “Sully” starring Tom Hanks, who portrayed Captain Chesley Burnett “Sully” Sullenberger III; Aaron Eckhart, who portrayed First Officer Jeffrey Skiles; and Laura Linney, who portrayed Lorraine Sullenberger.

On January 15, 2009, US Airways Flight 1549 departed New York’s LaGuardia Airport on a routine flight to Charlotte Douglas International Airport, Charlotte, N.C., but it was anything but routine.

About 3 minutes into the flight at 3:27 p.m. EST, the aircraft struck a flock of Canada geese during its initial climb-out, causing both jet engines to quickly lose power. Skiles was flying at the time, but at Sullenberger’s request, transferred pilot-in-command responsibilities to Sullenberger, who immediately turned on a tail-mounted generator that kept the computer-driven controls functioning.

Sullenberger initially turned back to LaGuardia, and considered landing at nearby Teterboro Airport, but realized by then that they did not have sufficient altitude to reach either airport and managed to safely glide to land in the Hudson River.

All 155 passengers and crew aboard the aircraft evacuated safely, and were rescued by ferryboats within minutes after landing. Some of the passengers and one flight attendant suffered injuries, but only two people required overnight hospitalization. The incident came to be known as the “Miracle On The Hudson,” but according to First Officer Jeff Skiles, it was not a miracle. Rather, the result of good training.

Pilot/actor Clint Eastwood directed the film, which is 1 hour 36 minutes in length.

The movie was based on Sullenberger’s book, “Highest Duty: My Search for What Really Matters,” a memoir of his life and of the events surrounding Flight 1549, published in 2009 by HarperCollins, and co-authored by Jeffrey Zaslow. At press time, the film had grossed $182.7 million – none of which went to Skiles – although he was portrayed in the film and conversations he had with Sullenberger were used in the script.

The scenes involving air traffic control we thought were very well done. The film showed the professionalism of controllers in how they direct traffic and handle emergency situations. Pilots seldom have the opportunity to witness the coordination between controllers, but “Sully” showed what happens behind the scenes.

The special effects showing the aircraft landing, and the passengers and crew being rescued, are excellent! But a film based on a 6-minute flight couldn’t be made without some Hollywood dramatization.

For instance, the hearings held by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) portrayed investigators as ruthless interrogators in a room filled with obnoxious reporters. The actual hearings involved a half-a-dozen investigators and were actually done in a private room without the media present, and they were not antagonistic, according to Skiles.

The big concern by investigators was could Sullenberger have made Teterboro after departing LaGuardia? A computer reenactment and analysis later proved that the aircraft had enough altitude and range to land at Teterboro had Sullenberger known that the emergency would have occurred, and knew to turn in that direction from the get-go. Instead, he turned to return to LaGuardia, then thought Teterboro might be a better option, but he did not want to take the chance of crashing in a densely populated downtown area.

Almost without hesitation, Sullenberger made the decision to instead land in the Hudson River, which was as straight as a runway and clear of obstructions, with the exception of the George Washington Bridge, which they narrowly avoided without stalling. While Sullenberger was flying the airplane, Skiles was trying to restart the engines, not knowing the extent of the damage.

Of the 35 recommendations made by NTSB in response to the incident, only six have been successfully completed, and 14 recommendations presented to the Federal Aviation Administration and its European counterpart, EASA, are marked by NTSB as “closed-unacceptable.” One has been withdrawn, and the rest remain unresolved.

Among NTSB’s closed-unacceptable recommendations is that the FAA should begin requiring the airlines to include procedures for a low-altitude, dual-engine failure in their checklists and pilot training. Current dual-engine failure checklists are currently written for cruising altitudes above 20,000 feet, which gives the flight crew time to complete and still regain altitude. Flight 1549 had total dual-engine failure at an altitude of only 2,818 feet.

Skiles agreed to emcee a special showing of the film in Beloit, Wisconsin on September 24, 2016, as a fundraiser for EAA Chapter 431 in Brodhead, Wisconsin, of which he is a member. He also made a special appearance at Wisconsin Aviation in Madison, Wis., on November 9, 2016, as a special favor to friends there. Skiles began his aviation career working as a flight instructor in Madison and still lives in the area. After a couple of years working for the Experimental Aircraft Association in Oshkosh, and co-chairing the EAA Young Eagles program with Sullenberger, Skiles has returned to flying for US Airways.

If any lessons have been learned from this incident, it has been that “cockpit resource management,” which only began in the 1990s, has paid off, says Skiles. Skiles told the crowd at Wisconsin Aviation that the training he received has nearly eliminated airline accidents, and was the reason he and Sullenberger were able to react as fast as they did. Before that flight on January 15, 2009, Skiles and Sullenberger had never flown together, but executed their duties as trained.

Skiles refuses to accept hero status as some have given to him and Sullenberger. Rather, he gives credit to the entire crew, including flight attendants, and to their passengers for their cooperation.

Just before landing in the Hudson River, Captain Sullenberger announced over the public address system, “brace for impact.”

Since then a book has been published entitled “Bracing For Impact” – True Tales of Air Disasters & The People Who Survived Them” by Robin Suerig Holleran and Lindy Philip.

Being strapped in the seat of an airplane as it prepares to make an emergency landing is an airline passenger’s worst nightmare. The compilers and contributors of this book know this terrifying and life-changing experience. They have lived out that fear and survived their own accidents.

In this collection of true-life survivor tales, people from all walks of life recount their traumatic narrow escapes as engines stalled, fuel ran out, hazardous weather conditions descended, and landings did not go according to plan. In the face of death, as life flashed before their eyes, some lives have been changed forever.

The book is available in paperback and as an e-book from Skyhorse Publishing. ISBN 978-1-63450-426-3: $14.99 (www.skyhorsepublishing.com).

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