Thursday, July 18, 2024

An Insider Reflects on ‘Sully’

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Every one of the 155 souls on board US Airways Flight 1549 survived a January 2009 flight that had to land on the Hudson River because of dual engine failure.

That heroic story is told in the movie “Sully,” and according to a pilot who flew that exact aircraft in prior years, it was a chillingly accurate portrayal of a worst-case scenario. That pilot also asked to stay anonymous for this story.

Capt. Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger (played by Tom Hanks), who was the captain of that Airbus A320, was lauded as a hero not only among the passengers onboard but by residents of New York as well. But as the film depicts, he underwent intense questioning, hearings, drug tests and psychological evaluations. He was grilled for his decision, but in the end he made the right choice.

When going to see a “based on a true story” movie, my No. 1 question is: How accurate is it? According to the pilot I spoke with, who has more than three decades of experience flying for a major airline, just about all of it is accurate.

There is what’s called a “sterile period,” which means pilots are only allowed to speak about job-related matters below 10,000 feet or when the breaks are engaged on the ground. Everything in the cockpit is recorded and, in the instance of a situation like this, listened to in order to determine if proper procedures were followed.

Training for these types of events are drilled into pilots, who are taught to follow items on a checklist to get the aircraft to safety. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) also has a rule that the captain can deviate from any regulation if it is in the interest in safety, but “you better be able to justify why you did it.”

In the case of an engine failure in the air, the captain can use a re-igniting procedure to use the wind flowing through the engine to light it again. That procedure only works if the aircraft is traveling faster than 300 knots.

If traveling under 300 knots, which was the case in this incidence since the plane was still ascending, the Auxiliary Power Unit (APU) may be used to re-ignite the engines. The APU is what’s used to power the plane and engines while on the ground.

Not only was Flight 1549 traveling under 300 knots, large birds were sucked into the engines and rendered them both inoperable. Sully deemed it necessary to start the APU before going through the other items on the checklist.

The movie depicts Sully and his co-pilot calmly assessing the situation, and even when the realization is made that the plane doesn’t have enough air time to land on a runway, the cockpit remains calm.

When Sully’s voice spoke through the intercom saying “brace for impact” just moments before the water landing, there’s no doubt the passengers on board were preparing for their final moments alive. The terrifying scene, where flight attendants can be heard repeating “heads down, stay down,” sent chills up my spine. That is also an accurate portrayal of what flight attendants are trained to do in the event of an emergency landing.

The pilot I interviewed said “The fact he landed in the Hudson had a huge factor in everyone surviving. Unlike the ocean, the water is smooth. Had it not been in New York, they may have lost everyone on the plane. They maybe would have been OK going into a field, but I doubt it very seriously. The Hudson had ships ready to take people off within a matter of 15 minutes.”

The only part of the story that seemed like a stretch, said the pilot, was the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) hearing. He said it was hard to imagine the NTSB trying to dishonestly prove the guilt of Sully.

“Sully” was definitely an entertaining movie, but the fact that mostly everything was factually accurate makes it a memorable one.

Jason Clary
Jason Clary
Jason is a graduate of the University of Central Florida where he studied journalism and creative writing. He is currently the web editor at Boca Raton Magazine.

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