On Jan. 15, 2009, Captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger landed his US Airways plane in the icy waters of the Hudson River after both engines were disabled. The culprit? A flock of Canada geese. Though rare, collisions between aircraft and flying animals like birds or bats cause an estimated $400 million a year in aircraft repairs.
In the film, the bird strike was recreated using computer graphics to give the audience a sense of what it looks like when hundreds of large birds get sucked into a plane’s engines, damaging the fan blades and causing the engines to fail. Canada geese can weigh up to 14 pounds. Luckily, no birds were killed in the making of the film.
Every Hollywood movie needs a villain. As much as the geese messed things up for the 155 people on board flight 1549, It’s likely PETA would have protested if the birds were represented as the bad guys.
Screenwriter Todd Komarnicki decided to focus on the National Transportation Safety Board’s team of investigators who grilled Sully and Skiles after the water landing, making it seem like the NTSB wanted to prove that Sully made the wrong decision and should have returned the plane to a nearby runway. This is a mostly fictional plot line, used to create conflict in the story.
It’s not surprising that the NTSB was not consulted for Sully, because the board would have been highly concerned with accuracy and would probably have made a big stink if they knew they were going to be depicted as bad guys. In a statement, the NTSB said, “We were not afforded an opportunity to ensure our actions and words were portrayed with accurate context or reflected our perspective.” That’s show biz.
But not everyone is OK with the false portrayal of the National Transportation Safety Board. Robert Benzon, a 27-year veteran of the NTSB, led the real investigation into the event that caused Capt. Sullenberger’s plane to end up in the river. Benzon seemed to be blindsided by the news that he is presented as a villain in the film. “I think we’re getting the dirty end of the stick here… From what I hear, this is somewhere between Sharknado 2 and Sharknado 3. I just hope it isn’t as bad as everyone is telling me it is,” said Benzon.
When the real Sully spoke to ABC News about the portrayal of the NTSB hearings in the movie, he seemed to remember them as very stressful. When asked if the process of the hearing was as antagonistic as it seemed on film, Sully said, “The process is, yes. The individuals of course were just following their mission, their charter which was to find the truth.”
In the real investigation of the event, Candace Kolander, a representative of the Association of Flight Attendants union, asked why Sullenberger had not told the flight crew they would be landing in the water. Apparently, there was so little time to prepare for the unusual landing that he didn’t want to take the risk of the flight attendants putting the passengers into life vests instead of instructing them on how to brace for the hard landing. Over the intercom, Sully simply said, “This is the captain. Prepare for impact,” just as Tom Hanks says in the movie.
Though it seemed as if Sully knew exactly how to land the plane in the river, in real life he says he never had any training. “In my flight simulators, it was not possible to practice a water landing. We were not trained in this. The only training we had ever gotten for this was a theoretical classroom discussion.” Sounds like Sully took really good notes on that discussion!
In real life, the stress of the water landing caused Sullenberger to develop post-traumatic stress disorder. In an interview, Sully said that as soon as he landed in the river, he knew his life would never be the same.
“I wasn’t getting any sleep. I was constantly, because of the PTSD, [having] distracted thinking, constant what-if, second-guessing, especially late at night, which is just natural in these kinds of situations.
“Our peers who are experts in PTSD, our critical instant response team, pilots that deal with people who have been through situations like this (fortunately they’re rare), I asked them to give us a road map of what to expect, and it was exactly what we did experience.”
In the movie, Sully’s PTSD plays out in his nightmares and his inability to sleep.
Sully’s wife, Lorrie, played by Laura Linney in the movie, was stunned when she saw her husband for the first time after the plane went down.
“The accident was on a Thursday, and he came home very, very late on the Saturday after — he got home around midnight. And for those two days in between, when I’d talk to him on the phone, he kept saying, ‘I’m fine, I’m fine, I’m fine, I’m fine,’ and he sounded fine on the phone.”
But seeing him was another story. Because of all the media attention, Sully had to fly home incognito.
“Sully got out of the car, I realized immediately that he wasn’t fine. He had lost 13 pounds in the 48 hours since the accident… He was very gaunt and had very dark circles [under his eyes],” said Lorrie to the South Carolina Post and Courier.
In the film, Lorrie seems to be a rock for Sully, being a safe haven for him to return to.
Both Sully and Lorrie were consultants on the film. Lorrie is the founder of Fit and Fabulous and has served as the regional ambassador for the California Governor’s Council on Physical Fitness. Sully retired from the airlines in 2010, but don’t think that all he does now is play golf. In an interview, he said, “Quite frankly, prior to Jan. 15, 2009, I was planning to work for the rest of my life. And I’m still not retiring from work. I’m retiring from the airline so I can use my time on other issues of great importance of this moment.”
The first officer of US Airways Flight 1549 was Jeff Skiles, played by Aaron Eckhart, who contacted the co-pilot when researching his role. In press materials, Skiles said, “We spoke for a couple hours and [Eckhart] asked me a lot of questions about being a pilot, not just why I wanted to be one but also why I continue to do so after that day.”
For Eckhart, he knew there was more to playing Skiles than just portraying him in the cockpit. “Jeff told me that first and foremost, they were always in control of the flight; they felt they could make a good landing, a controlled landing, in the Hudson… He also talked about the effect going through that trauma had on them afterward: stress, lack of sleep, loss of appetite, nervousness, that sort of thing. It lasted two or three months and they got counseling. And he’s a captain himself now.”
In the film, Sully and Jeff talk about going to counseling, but you never see them follow through with it.
The aviation industry has changed a lot over the last few decades, and not always for the better. Sullenberger used his hearing about landing in the Hudson as a platform to address these changes and how they affect industry professionals. In this transcript, Sully said, “While I love my profession, I do not like what has happened to it. I would not be doing my duty if I did not report to you that I am deeply troubled about its future. Americans have been experiencing huge economic difficulties in recent months, but airline employees have been experiencing those challenges and more for eight years. We have been hit by an economic tsunami… It is my personal experience that my decision to remain in the profession I love has come at a great financial cost to me and to my family. My pay has been cut 40 percent, my pension, like most airline pensions, has been terminated and replaced by a PBGC guarantee worth only pennies on the dollar.”
In the film, Sully and his wife Lorrie discuss having some financial issues, but we never see Sully addressing the problems facing the aviation industry in general.
Clint Eastwood, the movie’s director, had his own scare in the air when he was only 21. A soldier in the Army, Eastwood was a passenger on a Navy plane that was flying from Washington to California. In press materials he said, “It was stormy and we went down off of Point Reyes, California, in the Pacific, and I found myself in the water, swimming a few miles toward shore, thinking, ‘Well, 21’s not as long as a person wants to live.”
In real life, news anchor Katie Couric interviewed Sully on the CBS show 60 Minutes not long after the even occurred. Couric plays herself in Sully, but she also takes on the role of tormenter in some of Sully’s nightmares — a role Couric seems born to play, judging by her great performance in the movie.
While the real flight attendants Sheila Dail, Donna Dent and Doreen Welsh are played by Jane Gabbert, Ann Cusack and Molly Hagan, respectively, the filmmakers decided to get as many people as they could who actually helped with the rescue mission in 2009 to be in the film. This includes Capt. Vincent Peter Lombardi, who piloted the Thomas Jefferson ferryboat, and Officer Michael Delaney and Detective Robert Rodriquez, who were both part of the NYPD Air Sea SCUBA rescue unit.