This film, entitled “Sully,” was directed by 86-year-old Clint Eastwood and starred Tom Hanks in the title role.  The film is an adaptation of the book called “Highest Duty: My Search for What Really Matters,” published by Captain Chesley Sullenberger in 2009.

The story is well-known.  US Airways pilot Chesley Sullenberger is a Texas-born officer who graduated from the U. S. Air Force Academy in 1973 with a Bachelor of Science Degree.  He also holds two additional Master’s Degrees. 


Chesley SullenbergerCredit: wikimedia commons

                                                      Chesley Sullenberger - Wikimedia

Known as “Sully,” Sullenberger became a fighter pilot for eight years during the Vietnam era.  He was also a flight leader and a training officer, reaching the rank of Captain.  In 1980, he began his civilian career as a commercial pilot with Pacific Southwest which eventually evolved into a merger with US Airways.  As a professional pilot, Sully assumed the role of instructor and also as safety chairman and accident investigator with the Air Line Pilots Association.


The film re-enacts the events of January 15th, 2009 when Sully’s commercial airplane, Airbus A320, experienced a bird strike.  Reaching an altitude of 2800 feet, three minutes into the flight, the plane hit a flock of Canadian geese, which disabled both of the plane’s engines.  There were 155 people on board Flight 1549, which included five members of the flight crew.


US Airways PlaneCredit: wikimedia commons

                                                         US Airways Plane - Wikimedia

A Decision to Ditch

Sully and his co-pilot Jeff Skiles (Aaron Eckhart) faced a decision after air traffic control gave them two options:  return to LaGuardia Airport or to Teterboro Airport in New Jersey.  Sully realized that he could not maintain the plane in the air long enough to reach either of those destinations, given that the engines had both lost thrust and the plane was in danger of crashing into buildings on the way.  He made the decision to “ditch” the jet (make an emergency water landing) in the Hudson River.


Pilots have at their disposal a Quick Reference Handbook (QRH) which contains all the procedures to be used during an abnormal or emergency condition.   None of these procedures applied to Sully’s present condition.

“Brace for Impact”

Sully announced to the passengers on board “Brace for Impact.”  It was a tense situation to view, but knowing the positive outcome made the scenes easier to watch.  There was some panic and screaming, but it was short-lived.  Sully’s expertise allowed him to land the plane by gliding it along the water for several minutes before it came to a standstill.  Planes are equipped with inflatable rafts which were brought out instantly allowing the passengers to slide down to safety.  We witnessed only one woman who had apparently broken her leg, struggling to move along with her fellow passengers.


Tom HanksCredit: wikimedia commons

                                                              Tom Hanks - Wikimediaa

Some Actual Footage

The scenes in the Hudson River included some actual footage of the passengers standing on the wings of the plane, waiting to be rescued by Hudson River ferry boats.  January of 2009 was freezing cold, and the passengers were soaking wet as they waited.  The first boat to arrive alongside the plane was operated by Captain Vincent Lombardi (no relation to the coach).  Captain Lombardi played himself in the film.

All 115 Persons were Safe

Sully was the last one to leave the plane after he made certain that no passenger was left behind.  It took some time, but he learned eventually that all 115 people were accounted for.  Every life was saved.

The film “Sully” focuses mainly on the aftermath of the landing.  In fact, the accident did not occur until the film was underway for about 45 minutes.

Phone Calls to Sully’s Wife

Laura Linney played the role of Sully’s wife Lorrie.  In the film, they are never seen together in a scene.  Their only contact was by phone when Sully spoke to Lorrie after the survivors had all arrived at the Marriott Hotel in New York City.  He was able to assure Lorrie and their two daughters that he was all right, even before the family learned that the plane had landed in the Hudson River.


Laura LinneyCredit: wikimedia commons

                                                              Laura Linney - Wikimedia

An Instant Hero

Sully became an instant hero when the news media related the story which became known as the “Miracle on the Hudson.”  He received phone calls from president-elect Barack Obama as well as from the sitting president George W. Bush.  Sully and his entire crew were invited to Barack Obama’s inauguration.

The National Transportation Safety Board Investigates

An 18-month investigation ensued, however, into the situation surrounding the forced landing of the plane.  A negative conclusion could jeopardize Sully’s reputation and his career.  The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) board of inquiry maintained that only one engine had lost thrust and the other engine, though damaged, could have enabled the pilot to safely land at one of the designated airports.  A costly plane had been destroyed which was one of their concerns.  A safety expert himself, Sully Sullenberger maintained adamantly that he did not have enough time, speed or altitude to guide the plane to a safe landing at an airport.  A conclusion of pilot error would have effectively ended his career.

Flight Simulations

Sully therefore arranged to have several flight simulations created from the available data.  A live re-creation of the simulations was presented at a public hearing.  The NTBS board concluded that the plane could have arrived safely at the airport even though both engines were disabled.  However, Sully asked how many trials did the simulation pilots take before coming to that conclusion.  It was determined that the pilots made 17 tries before getting their answer.  When they were asked to do a simulation where they had to make their decision in 35 seconds, which was the only time that Sully had to work with, the simulation showed that the plane would not lift and would be in danger of crashing into a building.

After a short recess, the NTSB announced that the left engine had been recovered from the Hudson and it showed that it had been completely destroyed by the bird strike, a position that Sully maintained all along.


Aaron EckhartCredit: wikimedia commons

                                                        Aaron Eckhart - Wikimedia

The NTSB is Unhappy with their Depiction

The National Traffic Safety Board claimed that Clint Eastwood in his film “Sully” had unfairly and inaccurately depicted the board as being overly hostile to Sullenberg as well as being incompetent in their search for the truth. 

Sully Retires

Captain Chelsey Sullenberg retired from US Airways in 2010 after thirty years of service.  He owns a safety consulting business called Safety Reliability Methods, Inc. which he formed in 2007.  He is asked to speak often here and abroad about flight safety issues.  He has rightly received several awards and accolades for his prowess in saving the lives of 155 people and is considered a genuine hero.

Tom Hanks Lauded

Tom Hanks played his part well, and is already being mentioned for an Oscar for his performance as “Sully.”  Even Sully feels that he got him right.















Highest Duty: My Search for What Really Matters
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