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Cross checking Miracle on the Hudson

by Mike Buckley Pilot & Log board member

I’m sure everyone will know the story already. Back in January 2009, US Airways flight 1549 took off from New York’s LaGuardia airport and hit a flock of Canada geese at approximately 2,800 feet, after just three minutes flight time. The co-pilot, First Officer Jeffrey Skiles was flying the aircraft at the time, but handed control to Captain Chesley ‘Sully’ Sullenberger just after the incident. After assessing the state of his aircraft and his options, Sully made the decision to force land on the Hudson River, carrying out a perfect ditching with no casualties. He and his crew became the archetypal ‘all-American heroes’.

The film is based, in part, on Captain Sullenberger’s autobiography ‘Highest Duty’ and is directed by Clint Eastwood. Tom Hanks stars as Sully, with Aaron Eckhart as Skiles and both play the parts superbly. Eastwood’s direction is perfectly balanced, avoiding the potential Hollywood pitfalls and clichés. Perhaps the only downside is the portrayal of the NTSB, which caused some controversy as the investigators are showed as being ‘prosecutorial and closed-minded’. As always in any film of actual events, there is some ‘artistic licence’, and in this case it appears in the later stages of the film when we get to see the NTSB panel try to ‘railroad Sully’, a claim made by Eastwood. In fact, after Sullenberger had reviewed an early draft of the film’s script, he asked for a number of changes to be made, as he personally felt that the NTSB board were ‘not prosecutors’ and that the film’s depiction would not be fair on them. Whether those changes were made or not is unclear, as the film does not favour the NTSB, although Eastwood’s stance does ‘mellow’ later.

The film portrays two ordinary pilots doing their jobs. That they perform in an extraordinary manner is testimony to their experience and training. The film not only tells the story of the pilots, but also the three female cabin crew, who are seen to be exemplary, keeping the passengers calm and controlled throughout the ditching and subsequent evacuation.

The opening scene of the NTSB board’s inquiry, the chairman calls the proceedings ‘an investigation into the crash of Flight 1549’, to which Sullenberger objects immediately, correcting the chairman by stating that the incident ‘was not a crash, it was a forced water landing!’ The difference between the two may seem arbitrary, but the skill of the pilots made the difference between the two outcomes.

In the film, one of the ‘charges’ made against the crew was that the left engine had not failed completely and was in fact still running at idle. This statement was prompted by the preliminary data from the A320’s ACARS, a fact that Sullenberger rejected totally, insisting that both engines had failed completely. Unfortunately, the left engine had been ripped off the wing during the incident and was only recovered during the inquiry. On examination, indisputable signs that the engine had been completely destroyed by the birds was found, vindicating Sullenberger’s evidence. Did this actually happen? Perhaps not. I’m not sure if the NTSB always commence an inquiry before the accident investigators have all the evidence and produced their report. Here in the UK, we tend to wait until the AAIB report has been published, though recent events have threatened that position.

Another ‘charge’ was that the crew had sufficient time to make Teterboro airport, again a fact disputed by Sullenberger. Both the NTSB and Airbus had run simulations showing that a landing at Teterboro would have been possible. What they didn’t initially disclose was that the simulator pilots had tried over a dozen times before a successful landing was made. Sullenberger also pointed out that the simulations were ‘unrealistic’ as they didn’t take into account the time it took to assess the situation before taking actions they had already thought about, thus ignoring the human factor. Once the human factor was taken into consideration, it became obvious that a safe landing at Teterboro, or anywhere else, was not possible and Sullenberger’s decision was totally correct. Again, waiting until the accident report had been completed would, one would hope, have taken all this into consideration, but perhaps this is another example of ‘artistic licence’.

Between them, Sullenberger and Skiles make a number of pithy comments about the incident. “Fly the airplane!” says Sully – which always has to be the first action in any incident. And when asked if he would have done anything differently, Skiles replied, “I would have done it in July!”

Not being an A320 pilot, there may be technical errors I was not aware of, but as a film about our profession, it is the best I have seen for many years.

Sully: Miracle on the Hudson‘ is released in UK cinemas on Friday 2nd December.