September 7, 2016
I REALLY LIKED Tom Hanks in the Paul Greengrass movie, “Captain Phillips.”
There, that’s my review of the new film “Sully,” which opens this week, starring Hanks as U.S. Airways captain Chesley Sullenberger, guardian angel of the engineless Airbus A320 that splashed into the Hudson River in 2009, in what, for reasons that escape us, is widely hailed as the single most awesome, important, and unforgettable event in the history of heavier-than-air flight.
In other words, I’m not reviewing the movie. I can’t review it, because, in the interest of self-preservation, I’m afraid to see it.
It was all I could do to muster up the courage to take in the trailer. Which, in all honestly, had me wanting to see more. Once you get past the histrionics at the beginning — “No one warned us. No one said, you are going to lose both engines at a lower altitude than any jet in history.” — it’s a compelling little tease.
But thirty carefully culled seconds can be deceptive. I’ve been burned this way before. All I could do was shake my head. “Not bad,” I said to myself. “But do I have the stomach, or enough blood pressure medication, to get through two full hours of this?“
Call me a coward, and maybe — hopefully? — I’ve got it all wrong. Remember, though, I have decades of precedent on my side. When Hollywood does airplanes, the results are always a mess, ranging from borderline realistic to off-the-wall preposterous. There have been almost no exceptions to this — save, perhaps, for the efforts of the aforementioned Paul Greengrass, whose “United 93” was a damn good movie that got most of the pilot stuff correct. Problem is, Greengrass isn’t directing “Sully,” Clint Eastwood is, and I have a bad feeling about this one.
A few years back, I had a similar reaction after the movie “Flight” came out. That’s the one where Denzel Washington pours himself drinks at the galley, then crash-lands his jet into a field after an inexplicable malfunction causes him to fly a series of inexplicable aerobatics. I had no intention of seeing it. Readers (and a magazine editor or two) kept badgering me, though, and in time I gave in. A mistake, that was. Then, a couple of years later, in one of the most unforgivably misguided moments of my life, I actually gave the film a second try. I watched it again, and it was even more infuriating the second time around.
And did they have to call it “Sully?” Couldn’t they have picked a better title? For that matter, couldn’t they have picked a better story? The very premise of the movie is based on a myth: the idea that only the most skillful and fearless ace pilot was able to save flight 1549 from all but certain doom. “Miracle on the Hudson” and all that. What Would Sully Do? And for this allow me to cannibalize a segment from my book:
When the ill-fated jet took off from New York’s La Guardia airport, first officer Jeffrey Skiles had been at the controls. When the engines quit, at a little more than two-thousand feet above the ground after a collision with Canada geese, captain Sullenberger took over. There’s no reason a copilot can’t continue flying in an emergency, but in this case most of the primary instruments on Skiles’ side of the cockpit would have failed from loss of power. Sullenberger took the controls because, really, he had to.
Determining a place to land was urgent to say the least. A turn-back to La Guardia was deemed either too risky or downright impossible, as was continuing westward toward Teterboro airport in New Jersey. The choice, then, was either a crash landing in the middle of one of the most built-up cities in the world, or a ditching in the ice-cold Hudson River. The latter was hardly ideal, but it was clearly the better option and would have to do.
From there, Sullenberger would adjust the plane’s pitch to maintain an optimal glide speed. The trickiest part of the whole thing would be calculating the correct speed and altitude to begin the flare — when to pitch the nose up and break the descent. Flare too early and the plane could stall or drop hard into the water Keeping the wings level would also be critical, lest the plane flip, roll inverted, or otherwise break up, with certain loss of life.
Just the same, I’m uneasy at calling anybody a hero. Nothing they did was easy, but on the whole they did what they had to do, and what, we should hope, any other airline crew would have done in that same situation. Sullenberger himself readily admits as much. Not out of false modesty, but out of due respect for his colleagues everywhere. It wasn’t heroics that saved the day, it was, to use a word I normally dislike, professionalism.
And nowhere in the public discussion has the role of luck been adequately acknowledged. Flight 1549 was stricken in daylight, and in reasonably good weather that allowed the crew to visually choose a landing spot. Had the engines quit on a day with low visibility, or over a crowded part of the city beyond gliding distance to the river, the result would have been a total catastrophe. No amount of skill would have mattered. They needed to be good. But they needed to be lucky too. They were both.
A miracle describes an outcome that cannot be rationally explained. Everything that happened on January 15th, 2009 can be rationally explained. That nobody was killed was owed to four factors. They were, in descending order (pardon the pun): luck, professionalism, skill, and technology.
And look at the movie poster for a minute. There’s almost a religious sheen to it: the airplane looking bird-like, angel-like, with its outstretched escape slides, backdropped by a romanticized gray Gotham. It’s just a little much. (The plane is also facing the wrong direction. If that’s lower Manhattan on the right — including a mysteriously completed One World Trade Center tower, which in real life wasn’t finished until long after 2009 — we should be looking at the tail, not the nose.)
A hero, meanwhile, describes a person who accepts a great personal sacrifice, up to and including injury or death, for the benefit of somebody else. I’ve never suggested that Sullenberger and Skiles were merely “doing their jobs.” It was considerably more than that, and nothing about it was easy. A total engine failure and subsequent crash landing is a dire predicament even in ideal conditions. But I didn’t see heroics; I saw an outstanding execution of difficult tasks in the throes of a serious emergency.
And there’s a longstanding unfairness to the whole pilots-as-heroes thing that gets under my skin. Over the years, there have been countless aviators who, confronted by sudden and unusual danger, performed admirably, with just as much or skill and resolve as can ever be hoped for. But they weren’t as lucky. By virtue of this and nothing more, they and many of their passengers perished.
(Soundtrack for this post: “Nobody’s Heroes,” one of the brashest records of the 1980s, from the long forgotten Belfast rockers Stiff Little Fingers.)
As the trailer tells it, “Sully” goes beyond the flight 1549 accident itself. This is the proverbial “untold story” of everything that happened afterward, and how Sullenberger, the man, endured it. It explores some of the skepticism and second-guessing that dogged the investigation. Did Sullenberger and Skiles do the right thing by aiming for the Hudson? Is it true they could have, or should have, made a U-turn and glided back to La Guardia? Is it true that one of the plane’s engines was still functioning?
Sure, all of that is interesting stuff. To a point. Forgive me, but of all the harrowing things that have happened to planes, pilots, and their passengers over the years, this is the best the movie-makers could come up with? Why don’t we have a John Testrake movie? Why don’t we have a Bernard Dhellemme movie? Who, you ask? Here, take an hour out of your life and watch this documentary.
And others too. Chances are you’ve never heard of them — maybe because their planes didn’t come splashing down alongside the world’s media capital.
I can’t help thinking about Al Haynes, the United Airlines captain who, ably assisted by three other pilots, deftly guided his crippled DC-10 to a crash landing in Sioux City, Iowa, in 1989. A disintegrated engine fan had bled out all three of the plane’s hydraulics systems, resulting in a total loss of flight controls. Using differential engine power to perform turns, all the while battling uncontrollable pitch oscillations, that Haynes and his crew were able to pull off even a semi-survivable landing (112 people were killed; 184 survived) is about as close to a miracle as you can get.
Or, how about about Donald Cameron and Claude Ouimet, the pilots of Air Canada flight 797, who managed — barely — to get their burning jet onto the runway in Cincinnati in 1987. It took so much effort to fly the plane that they passed out from exhaustion after touchdown.
Or consider the predicament facing American Eagle captain Barry Gottshall and first officer Wesley Greene three months earlier. Moments after takeoff from Bangor, Maine, their Embraer regional jet suffered a freak system failure resulting in full and irreversible deflection of the plane’s rudder. Struggling to maintain control, they returned to Bangor under deteriorating weather. Visibility had fallen to a mile, and as the 37-seater approached the threshold, Gottshall had to maintain full aileron deflection — that is, the control wheel turned to the stops and held there — to keep from crashing into the woods. Theirs was pure seat-of-the-pants improv. A fully deflected rudder? There are no checklists, and no procedures, for that one.
Me, I’ll take a daylight ditching in the Hudson over any of those three.
If the trailer is any indication, together with complaints from those who’ve seen the film, Clint Eastwood’s political biases have a role in “Sully” as well. His antigovernment sentiments are no secret, and here he’s casting Sully as a kind of everyman American hero, in battle with vindictive NTSB bureaucrats out to railroad him. But is that really how things played out? Already there are rumblings over this aspect of the storyline.
“The portrayal of the NTSB investigators in the new ‘Sully’ movie as prosecutors is not only wildly inaccurate but grossly unfair,” says Mark Dombroff, an aviation lawyer who represented U.S. Airways during the investigation.
Folks at the NTSB, which is about the most highly respected government agency that exists, are no less critical. I received an email from Robert Benzon, Investigator-In-Charge of the NTSB’s inquiry into the flight 1549 accident. “This movie will hinder the success of future NTSB investigations,” says Benzon, “because of its incredibly inaccurate depiction of how such investigations are conducted. The NTSB needs the cooperation of all investigation participants: aircraft and engine manufactures, airline operators, the FAA, employee unions, and very importantly flight crewmembers. The movie ‘Sully’ was a step backward.”
For the record, U.S. Airways 1549 was one of a handful of intentional “water landings” involving a commercial airliner in the modern era…
— In 1956, Pan Am flight 943, a Boeing Stratocruiser, ditched in the Pacific northeast of Hawaii, with only minor injuries.
— In 1963, an Aeroflot jet splash-landed in the Neva River outside Leningrad. Everybody on board survived.
— In 1970, an Overseas National Airways (ONA) DC-9 bound from New York to St. Croix ditched in the Caribbean after running out of fuel. Twenty-three people were killed and 40 were rescued.
— In 1996, an Ethiopian Airlines 767 went down off the Comoros Islands after running out of fuel during a hijacking. Video taken by tourists at a nearby beach shows plane slamming into the water and cartwheeling into pieces. At the moment of impact, the pilots and hijackers had been wrestling for control.
— In 2002, a Garuda Indonesia 737 ditched in a river near Yogyakarta, Indonesia, after both engines quit during a severe rainstorm. A flight attendant was killed.
— In 2006, a Tunisian ATR-72 turboprop crashed into the Mediterranean off the coast of Sicily. Twenty-three people survived.
— In 1977, a hijacked Boeing 747 owned by the Stevens Corporation plunged into the Bermuda Triangle and quickly sank. Miraculously, the cabin remained intact, leaving the occupants trapped alive at the bottom of the ocean. They were later rescued through the ingenious use of giant flotation balloons.
Oh, wait, that last one was the movie “Airport ’77.”
And this one.
Note: portions of this story appeared previously in the online magazine Salon.