ByHeather Snowden, writer at
Lover of bad puns, nostalgic feels and all things Winona. Email: [email protected] Tweet: @heathbetweetin
Heather Snowden

On January 15, 2009 Airbus A320 pilot Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger pulled off a feat so incredible it became widely dubbed a miracle: He conducted an emergency landing on the Hudson river and saved the lives of 155 passengers. Seven years later and Clint Eastwood is turning the story of this American icon into what appears to be a tragic tale of turmoil and controversy starring Tom Hanks, Anna Gunn and Laura Linney. Check out the trailer below:

The official synopsis is as follows:

On January 15, 2009, the world witnessed the “Miracle on the Hudson” when Captain Sully (Hanks) glided his disabled plane onto the frigid waters of the Hudson River, saving the lives of all 155 aboard. However, even as Sully was being heralded by the public and the media for his unprecedented feat of aviation skill, an investigation was unfolding that threatened to destroy his reputation and his career.

A threatening investigation, doomed career and ruined reputation seem a far cry from the version of events we heard at the time, a time when all news coverage pegged Sully as the sane man who made prompt and ultimately life-saving decisions that would leave him crowned a hero. But could we have missed some harrowing details? Let's have a look at the story we know so far before Sully lands in theaters this autumn.

The Miracle On The Hudson

  • January 15, 2009 Chelsey Sullenberger was the pilot in command of an Airbus A320 flight that took off from LaGuardia, New York heading to Charlotte/Douglas International Airport, North Carolina: Flight 1549, at 3:26pm.
  • Approximately 30–45 seconds after takeoff, he reported the plane had been hit by a large flock of birds — later confirmed to be Canadian geese — there was a large tremor, both engines were disabled with one apparently on fire, and he requested to return to the ground.
  • The nearest identified airport was New Jersey but when it became apparent the plane would neither make it there nor back to LaGuardia, NY, Sullenberger prepared for a crash landing in the Hudson.
  • Meanwhile his co-pilot, Jeff Skiles, kept trying to restart the engines to no avail and checking off emergency landing procedures that the crew normally begins at 35,000 ft. as opposed to their altitude of 3,000 ft.
  • Sullenberger instructed the passengers to "brace for impact."
  • At 3:29pm a man from the Bronx called 911 with the following message: "Oh my God! It was a big plane. I heard a big boom just now. We looked up, and the plane came straight over us, and it was turning."
  • Seconds later the plane struck down into the Hudson, parallel to 48th Street in midtown Manhattan — a stretch usually populated with tourists enjoying a waterside view of the city's skyscrapers — around 3:31pm.
  • All 155 people on board when the plane ditched into the waters survived.
  • Sullenberger helped passengers escape onto rescue boats, walked the length of the passenger cabin twice to make sure everyone had escaped safely, before retrieving the plane's maintenance logbook and evacuating himself.

Captain Cool And The 'Hero Of Hudson'

Captain Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger, then 57 years old was a 39-year veteran of US Airways, with 40 years aviation experience and approximately 20,000 flight hours clocked in jets, propeller plans and gliders. He was described by friends as "shy and reticent," and was widely praised for the cool, poised demeanor during the crisis — hence the nickname, Captain Cool. Although some might have been suspicious of the pilot's poise, his neighbors John and Jane Garcia reassured:

"If you met Sully, you'd understand. You'd say, 'Yep, that's Sully.'"

While family friend Jim Walberg praised his humble nature:

"Sure, he's a hero, but he's also a humble man. 'Hero' isn't a name he'll take to very easily."

A graduate of the USAF academy, Purdue University and the University of Northern Colorado, Sullenberger was also a speaker on two panels at a High Reliability Organizations conference in France in '07, named a visiting scholar at the University of California, served as an instructor and Airline Pilots Association safety chairman, an accident investigator — the list goes on. In a nutshell, he seems like an all around good guy.

The National Transportation Safety Board Findings

Shortly after the landing, a team of 20 investigators from the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) were dispatched to root out the cause of the failure. After a 15-month investigation, here were the main findings:

  • Sullenberger's account of the plane being "too low [and] too slow" to land anywhere other than the river was backed up by the flight recorder. NTSB member Kitty Higgins confirmed, "The captain makes radio call to ATC (air traffic control) calling "mayday" and reports that they hit birds, lost both engines and were returning to LaGuardia."
  • The NTSB said the radar data confirmed the plane had intersected with a group of "primary targets," almost certainly the geese.
  • NTSB Chairman Deborah A.P. Herman said in a statement, “Once the birds and the airplane collided and the accident became inevitable, so many things went right. This is a great example of the professionalism of the crew members, air traffic controllers and emergency responders who all played a role in preserving the safety of everyone aboard.”
  • It was also recognized that ditching into the Hudson “provided the highest probability that the accident would be survivable.”
  • In fact, there was very little in NTSB's report that suggested Sullenberger or his crew did anything incorrectly, though there were a few pointers for developing proper procedures should such a case happen again.

Reading Between The Lines

However, tucked in between the thousands of pages of testimony lie hints that actually, in hindsight, Sullenberger could have made it back to LaGuardia Airport. Pilots recreating the accident — including the sudden loss of both engines after an impromptu bird attack — were repeatedly able to land their virtual airliners at that airport if their decision to turn back was immediate.

Secondly, safety rules prohibit any type of cellphone use from within the cockpit —from the second the pilot moves the airline toward takeoff until the the plane has climbed to 10,000 ft. These are the similar rules that bar you from calling, texting, using personal laptops and general electronic equipment during take off and landing. In the case of Flight 1549, cockpit voice recordings indicate that Sullenberger made a flight-related cell call while the flight was taxiing toward take-off. The call was seemingly to inform a US Airways official about passenger numbers.

However, whether or not this call actually happened is still in dispute.

Clint Eastwood's Sully

When the trailer for Clint Eastwood's Sully dropped earlier this summer, a rather scathing review for his "Misery on the Hudson" approach rather than the "Miracle" came from the New York Post, questioning the intentions of a narrative that will contain scenes of Sullenberger being questioned about alcohol consumption and potential home issues that could've affected his performance on the day.

However, perhaps the movie will unearth some as yet unpublicized behind-the-scenes goings on during the time, or perhaps its cinematic approach will be rather loosely based.

Regardless, in a press release via Warner Bros. Captain Sullenberger himself seems delighted by the film's content:

“I am very glad my story is in the hands of gifted storyteller and filmmaker Clint Eastwood, and veteran producers Allyn Stewart and Frank Marshall. The project could not have found a better home than Warner Bros. Pictures. This is truly a dream team.“The story being told came from my experiences, and reflects the many challenges that I faced and successfully overcame both during and after the flight."

To learn more about Sully's account of the Hudson river miracle, check out his self-penned Highest Duty: My Search for What Really Matters before the movie's release on Sept. 9.

Are you looking forward to Sully?

Sources: The Guardian, The Guardian, Wired, WSJ, NYP


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