Sully the Movie – A Pilot’s Perspective

“So what did you think of the movie?”

I was immediately faced with that question as I walked out of the screening of Sully, Clint Eastwood’s film about the 2009 landing in the Hudson River, starring Tom Hanks as Captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger.

Well, here’s what I think:

Firstly, I thoroughly enjoyed the film for the technical accuracy of the flight and subsequent river landing with very realistic use of CGI. It had to be accurate as so much of the material has already been published. The transcripts of the CVR (Cockpit Voice Recorder) ¬†were already published in Sullenberger’s 2009 book Highest Duty – My Search for What Really Matters, which¬†also told his life story and related the events of the day in great detail.

These CVR recordings lead me to the one aspect I did not appreciate as much – the movie has the CVR played for the first time during the public hearing, while in fact, according to Sullenberger there were only six people present in the audio lab where they first listened to it. But this would not have suited Eastwood’s whole premise for the movie. He built the dramatic edge around the NTSB ruthlessly pursuing Sullenberger and Jeff Skiles, the First Officer (very ably played by Aaron Eckhart). In Eastwood’s mind the NTSB were the bad guys, out to get the good guys – the pilots – who were assumed guilty until proven not guilty.

It bears stating here that any accident investigation by nature is uncompromising. Nothing can simply be assumed and every detail has to be interrogated to arrive at a definitive answer. The objective is not to apportion blame, but to learn and make recommendations to avoid similar events in future.

Sullenberger himself was very clear about the conflict in his own mind – could they possibly have made it back to La Guardia or even Teterboro? Here his whole career of over forty years would be judged on 208 seconds and one decision. I could clearly identify with this self-doubt, something we as professional pilots know well. There is always the nagging worry that something could have been handled better, it is the perfectionist nature of our occupation.

Hanks captures the gravitas of Sullenberger in this situation perfectly. He has proved before that he can deliver empathetic portrayals of men in difficult situations (Apollo 13, Captain Phillips), balancing human frailty with steely resolve.

Sully is a great movie, which caters for a general movie audience who would simply enjoy a rollicking drama of good people conquering adversity. Yet it still satisfies those aviators, who have more than just a passing interest in the dramatic events of January 15th, 2009.

Hopefully the movie will also allow a glimpse into how seriously professional pilots take their occupation – Hanks’s Sullenberger provides the ideal example. His one decision on that day led to 155 souls surviving a dual engine failure and a subsequent forced water landing – pilots daily make hundreds of decisions with less dramatic impact, but which directly affects the lives of passengers worldwide.

Go and see the movie!