Heroes Among Us
Tom Hanks plays airline pilot ‘Sully’ Sullenberger in a riveting new movie about the ‘Miracle on the Hudson’
On Jan. 15, 2009, on a chilly Manhattan day, the city covered in a light dusting of snow and with temperatures hovering around 20 degrees, the world watched a miracle unfold in real time, minute by harrowing minute.
US Airways Flight 1549 en route to Charlotte, N.C., with both engines disabled, careened low past the Manhattan skyline, seemingly destined for a tragic fatal ending from what many feared was another terrorist attack. This time, however, the culprits were birds, which had struck the plane.
The 208 seconds from bird strike to landing—and the ensuing story most don’t know—are the subject of Sully, the new movie directed by Clint Eastwood and opening Sept. 9, starring Tom Hanks as Capt. Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger, the pilot who glided the unstable plane to a successful emergency landing in the frigid Hudson River.
“I remember it vividly,” says Eastwood, 86, who had experienced a water landing himself in the Army when the Navy plane on which he was hitching a ride had to land off the coast of San Francisco. He swam a mile to shore. “I know the anxieties when the engines are out and you’re heading towards the water,” he says.
The media was quick to anoint Sullenberger a hero, a title often used flippantly. Eastwood is adamant it’s a title the pilot fully deserves. “Sully is the real deal. When I was growing up, a hero was somebody who did something spectacular, like Sergeant [Alvin] York and Audie Murphy,” respectively regarded as the greatest hero of World War I and the most decorated U.S. soldier of World War II.
“Sully didn’t think of himself as a hero,” Eastwood says. “He thought of himself as a guy just doing the best job he could under the circumstances. He had a very dramatic heroic moment. That one moment will stay with him and in the minds of people forever.”
‘Sully’: the Man, the Movie
Sullenberger, 65—with 42 years of flying experience and 20,000 flight hours—and his co-pilot, First Officer Jeffrey Skiles (played by Aaron Eckhart), had a routine takeoff before their day took a momentous turn as they ascended over the Bronx.
“Jeff and I both saw the big flock of Canada geese about three football field lengths ahead two or three seconds before we struck them, with no time or distance to maneuver a vast airliner out of their path,” Sullenberger says. “I shouted, ‘Birds!’ and then we struck them.”
Like most pilots, Sullenberger had bird strikes before, but usually one or two small ones that didn’t damage the plane. “What happened to us was a ‘ black swan’ event, a very
rare event,” he says. At least two geese went through the core of one engine and at least one went through the other. “There was a loud boom and terrible noises I’d never heard before. Then I felt severe vibrations as the birds were tearing the machinery apart.” A passenger
later said it sounded like sneakers going around in a dryer.
What confirmed his worst fears was the odor of burning birds coming into the cabin air.
Thrust loss happened within seconds, causing the airplane to stop moving forward. “It felt,” he says, “as if the bottom had fallen out of the world.”
It went eerily silent. The aircraft started gliding fast toward the river, leaving Sullenberger less than three and a half minutes to do what no pilot had done before.
In aviation, there are strict priorities: Fly the airplane first, analyze the situation and begin taking corrective action and then communicate with passengers and flight attendants.
“Professional pilots learn to summon up from somewhere within to do our jobs in spite of normal human response and our body’s physiological reaction to this life-threatening stress,” Sullenberger says. “I was aware of my pulse shooting up, my blood pressure spiking and my perception field narrowing. But we had the discipline and the intense focus on the task at hand to be able to do our jobs.”
Skiles started going through a three-page checklist of emergency procedures as the plane plummeted 20 feet a second at about 200 miles per hour. “We only got through the first page, and I thought we were doing well to do that,” Sullenberger says.
“We didn’t even have a conversation about what had just happened. It was a wordless collaboration, a well-choreographed challenge-response dance we knew we had to do to help each other, only the absolutely most important things, and do them very, very well.”
The Untold Story
Few who watched the coverage of the “Miracle on the Hudson,” as the event came to be called, were aware of the official inquiry from the National Transportation and Safety Board that came later, and the emotional impact on Sullenberger and his family.
“People may think they know the story, but they don’t,” Sullenberger says. “This [movie] is about all the behind-the-scenes things that really propel this traumatic event: the event itself, the pilots union investigation, the NTSB investigation.
“My livelihood and professional reputation were absolutely on the line.” The investigation stretched on for more than a year before concluding that Sullenberger took the right action to save his passengers.
At first, Sullenberger resisted being called a hero. “But with the passage of time, I began to understand it gave people hope,” he says, like his own heroes growing up— Apollo 11 spacecraft commander Neil Armstrong and “all of our country’s Medal of Honor recipients”—gave him.
Sullenberger is pleased that Sully is not just another thrill-ride plane movie with a hero captain saving the day. It reveals what he and his wife, Lorrie (played by Laura Linney), consider the multiple factors that had an impact on their lives: the flight itself, the life-threatening event, the global public recognition in the aftermath and the long investigation and intense pressure endured by Sullenberger, Skiles and the three flight attendants: Donna Dent, Doreen Welsh and Sheila Dail.
“I hope the movie gives people a renewed sense of what’s possible,” Sullenberger says. “That when we, as Lincoln would say, ‘listen to our better angels’ and work together, there’s little we cannot accomplish, even in the worst circumstances.”
A Captain’s Captain
Tom Hanks, 60, was worn out after returning from Budapest, where he filmed director Ron Howard’s action-packed Inferno, the latest movie based on a Dan Brown best-seller. “I was tired,” he says. “I had a million reasons not to do Sully.” Then he read the script. “It’s so powerful. What
could have happened would haunt you,” Hanks says. “Sully dodged this bullet purely on instinct in a very short amount of time, with the knowledge and faith that he could do it.” Having to wait for 15 months for the results of the investigation and hearings, says Hanks, “meant for [almost] a year and a half he had a knot in his stomach.”
Hanks met Sullenberger at the pilot’s home in Northern California. Sully was very particular about the details being true to life. “He said, ‘Look, you’re not allowed to talk in the cockpit after the plane pulls away from the gate. You don’t chitchat. There’s no casual conversation until you reach altitude.’ So if I hadn’t known that, Aaron Eckhart and I might have been talking baseball, steaks or girlfriends.”
In preparation for the movie, Hanks and Eckhart went into a flight simulator. “We flew it, the exact flight,” he says. “They programmed it all, from the birds hitting to the landing. ”
They then tried to simulate taking the flight back to LaGuardia. “Aaron and I crashed
horribly,” says Hanks. Investigators ultimately confirmed that Sullenberger made the right decision by landing the plane in the waters of the Hudson, instead of steering for the tarmac.
A Metaphor for Life
Hanks is no novice at playing a captain, most notably in 2013’s
Captain Phillips, about the 2009 hijacking of the U.S. container ship
Maersk Alabama by Somali pirates, and his role as astronaut Jim Lovell in 1995’s Apollo 13.
He’s most drawn, he says, to roles about professionals who choose to go into a line of work not able to imagine doing anything else, and then at one point have all of their experience and expertise tested.
“That’s a metaphor for life, you know? It’s not that fate put them in this place that made them heroes. It’s actually all of their experience, their particular persona and drive that got them to the place where they know what to do when the time comes,” Hanks says. “It’s the guy who will say, ‘No, unable—can’t land at LaGuardia or Teterboro. Follow me. Listen to what I’m saying. Brace, brace, brace.’
“Sully would say, ‘ You know who the heroes are? The guys who dropped everything and drove their boats to save people from falling in the water and hypothermia.’ But Sully did almost a superhuman thing—calm, easy, confident, no assurance that it was going to be successful. That is something else.”
Who’s Your Hero?
Go to Parade.com/heroes to share your hero and to view 50 hometown heroes from across America.
Top: Flight 1549 passengers await rescue in the
Hudson in 2009. Captain Sully is happy that his story “found a very good home” in the hands of director Eastwood and Hanks (above).