An Airline Pilot Evaluates ‘Sully’

Tom Hanks and Aaron Eckhart play Capt. Chesley Sullenberger and Jeffrey Skiles respectively in the movie Sully. AtlasPix/Alamy Stock Photos

As an airline pilot, I was anxious to watch Sully. Finally, I could attend an aviation movie without my wife having to bear witness to eye-rolling and corrective commentary.

Most likely, as a Flying reader, you have already seen the film; if you haven't, consider this a spoiler alert. Regardless, I thought it would be more interesting to provide insight into the realities of US Airways Flight 1549 than to offer a critique. I was afforded the opportunity for this insight via a conversation with Flight 1549 copilot Jeffrey Skiles. In addition, I felt it important to consider the movie's potential effect on my profession and the flying public.

Overall, I was pleased that Sully was a mostly accurate portrayal of our business. It's difficult to create a cinematic dud when you combine the talents of Clint Eastwood and Tom Hanks, and the film could not have been cast better. It was a welcome relief that even the flight attendants acted with realism, abandoning the stereotypical, phony coffee-tea-or-me demeanor of most airplane movies.

The depictions of pilot banter and checklist completion were superior; I never had to cringe. It was a pleasure to see a mostly sterile cockpit during the takeoff sequence. The fact that Hanks and Aaron Eckhart, as Capt. Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger and Skiles, managed to capture the essence of realistic reactions to the emergency was a testament to a director who listens. I am certain that my colleagues felt the same.

But eventually, Hollywood departed the fix toward poetic license. As frustrating as it may be, that’s the producer’s prerogative. In this case, the rights to Sullenberger’s life story had already been sold back in 2010. That being said, Sully did make contributions to the script.

First on the list of discrepancies is the compressed timeline of events after the ditching. Most of us are well aware that accident investigations aren’t completed in four days inclusive of a hearing. The process for US Airways Flight 1549 took 16 months before the final report was produced. Beyond the media firestorm, this was a textbook National Transportation Safety Board investigation. All of the appropriate protocol was followed.

Despite the movie drama, the simulator profiles of the flight weren’t completed until months after the accident, and certainly not live during the hearing. Sully and Skiles didn’t have an opportunity to hear the cockpit voice recorder (CVR) until six months into the investigation. Interestingly enough, as may have been apparent in the transcripts from the taxiing at LaGuardia, the copilot’s mic was not directly recording transmissions through the CVR, a malfunction discovered later. Skiles’ voice was recorded only through the cockpit-area microphone.

The aspect of the movie I found disturbing was the demonization of the NTSB. OK, I get that the villain versus hero theme sells, but for this circumstance it seemed wholly unnecessary. For any accident, the NTSB’s chartered purpose is to find probable cause such that a similar event never reoccurs. In reality, it treated Sully and Skiles with “kid gloves” — a direct quote from Skiles. After all, they had been proclaimed heroes by the world.

The only real demons originated from the trauma the two pilots faced after their ordeal. Remember, the event was officially classified as an accident. Regardless of a positive outcome, an accident is not a box any airline pilot wants to check off during the course of his or her career.

And after their ultimate decision, Sully and Skiles critiqued themselves. Although self-critique is a habit of a true professional, it carries the side effect of self-doubt. That self-doubt can manifest in sleep disruption, nightmares, personality changes and more.

Having been trained in critical incident stress management and having been involved with a major accident and other incidents as a peer-support volunteer, I am well aware of the effects of post-traumatic stress disorder. Those effects were a reality for the entire crew of Flight 1549. The fact that Sully and Skiles were able to demonstrate such poise while being inundated with media appearance requests is a testament to their fortitude.

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One of the other less realistic aspects of the movie was the presentation of a relatively quiet cockpit after the bird strike. The cockpit was actually anything but. The electronic centralized aircraft monitor (ECAM) was displaying so many warning messages that they were being prioritized in order of severity. In addition, aural warnings included a potential conflict with traffic that automatically announced through the TCAS, “Traffic, traffic,” and then, “Clear of conflict.” This was followed by the predictive wind shear command “Go around, wind shear ahead,” followed by numerous enhanced ground proximity warning system alerts: “Too low. Terrain,” then “Too low. Gear,” and finally “Terrain. Terrain. Pull up.”

And as if the automatic distractions weren’t enough, the ECAM does not display an electronic checklist for a dual engine failure. The emergency was considered an “ECAM exception,” which requires the use of a print checklist. After Sully took control of the airplane, Skiles was tasked with reading the challenge-and-response items of the quick reference handbook. Amid the controlled chaos, both Sully and Skiles had to perform the actions required.

Lastly, although the movie depicts only Sully wading through the frigid water to the back of the airplane in search of remaining passengers, in reality both pilots were involved. Their goal was to procure life jackets for the people standing on the wings. Sully and Skiles performed this final task by handing out the life jackets to a pair of volunteers standing by the over-wing exits.

I asked Skiles whether the adrenaline rush allowed him to feel the temperature of the water. He said: “Are you kidding? It was so cold it hurt. That’s why we climbed on the armrests.” I can only imagine.

Beyond the deviations from the actual story, I applaud Warner Bros., Clint Eastwood and Chesley Sullenberger for one of the best portrayals to date of a modern-day airline pilot. It is gratifying to have our profession put on a pedestal by colleagues who did a superior job under extraordinary circumstances.

Although many of my fellow pilots may not have received the recognition of a Hudson River landing, they certainly have performed in superior fashion under other extraordinary circumstances.

Les Abend
Les AbendAuthor
Les Abend is a retired, 34-year veteran of American Airlines, attempting to readjust his passion for flying airplanes in the lower flight levels—without the assistance of a copilot.

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