Sully, the new film starring Tom Hanks and directed by Clint Eastwood, opened recently to great box office success. It tells the dramatic story of the “Miracle on the Hudson,” the successful forced landing of US Airways Flight 1549 in the Hudson River on January 15, 2009 by Captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger and First Officer Jeff Skiles after a bird strike and failure of both engines of their Airbus A320. The film accurately recreates the event, but also includes a wholly fictional confrontation between Sullenberger and fictional National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) investigators in which the investigators challenge Sullenberger’s actions during the event.
What actually happened?
The facts of the incident are so familiar that they scarcely bear repeating. Two minutes after takeoff from LaGuardia Airport, at an altitude of only 2,800 feet, the Airbus struck a flock of Canada geese, causing both engines to flame out. After briefly considering turning back to LaGuardia or attempting to reach Teterboro Airport in New Jersey, Sullenberger concluded that the best option was the river. One minute and fifteen seconds later the plane hit the water. Although badly damaged, the aircraft remained intact and afloat, and all 155 passengers and crew were rescued by ferries and rivercraft. Sullenberger was acclaimed as a hero and became an immediate media celebrity.
In his 2009 memoir, Highest Duty: My Search for What Really Matters (on which the film claims to be based), Sullenberger describes listening to the cockpit voice recorder (CVR) and radio communications recordings in a small room with, Skiles,an Airline Pilot’s Association accident specialist, and three NTSB officials. He wrote, “The investigators were happy to have Jeff and me there with them,” and had them explain sounds and bits of conversation that were unclear on the tapes. An NTSB human performance specialist who took part in interviewing them has said, “I personally was very impressed.” Sullenberger describes his own self-questioning in the wake of the accident, but never accuses the NTSB of attempting to second-guess him.
The NTSB accident report released in May, 2010, is replete with praise for the actions of the crew. It states that the flight simulations highlighted in the film showed that to reach either LaGuardia or Teterboro airport would have required an immediate turn which could not have been done successfully under real world conditions, and that, “the captain’s decision to ditch on the Hudson River rather than attempting to land at an airport provided the highest probability that the accident would be survivable.” Also, it states that starting the auxiliary power unit immediately after the bird strike was “critical,” because it ensured that electrical power was available to keep vital aircraft control systems operating.
Most importantly, the report praises Sullenberger and Skiles’ teamwork and crew resource management (CRM) during the incident, saying, “Both pilots indicated that CRM was integral to the success of the accident flight.” Sullenberger told the investigators that US Airways training “gave pilots the skills and the tools needed to build a team quickly, open lines of communication, share common goals, and work together.” The report calls the coordination between Sullenberger and Skiles “excellent and professional,” and says that each pilot adhered to his role and responsibilities during the incident: “The first officer progressed through the checklist while the captain was flying the aircraft, communicating with ATC and determining a suitable landing point. In addition, the captain used the first officer as a resource by requesting his input during the accident sequence.” And it concludes, “the professionalism of the flight crewmembers and their excellent CRM during the accident sequence contributed to their ability to maintain control of the airplane, configure it to the extent possible under the circumstances, and fly an approach that increased the survivability of the impact.”
In fact, the NTSB report shows that the crucial factor in the “Miracle on the Hudson” was the dedication, skill and professionalism of both pilots in responding to an unprecedented emergency. The dramatized public proceeding depicted in the film never occurred, and the NTSB did not question Sullenberger’s decision making or performance. Whatever its merits as cinema, Sully presents an invented version of the investigation which needlessly denigrates the dedication, skill and professionalism of the NTSB and its personnel.
Alan Hoffman is a member of Husch Blackwell’s Technology, Manufacturing, & Transportation Aviation practice. For more information about Husch Blackwell’s Aviation practice, click here.
 The film proceeding in no way resembles the actual public hearing held on June 9, 2009.