He­roes Among Us

Tom Hanks plays air­line pi­lot ‘Sully’ Sul­len­berger in a riv­et­ing new movie about the ‘Mir­a­cle on the Hud­son’

Albuquerque Journal - Parade - - FRONT PAGE - By Ni­cola Bridges • Cover and open­ing pho­tog­ra­phy by Art Streiber/Stock­land Mar­tel

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).

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