The New “Sully” Movie: How Accurate?
Ladies and gentlemen, from the Flight Blog, this is your Cap’n speaking… welcome aboard my first story at the new airwaysmag.com!
Before we close the door and push back, a quick introduction. My name is Eric Auxier, a Columnist for Airways. I am also an Airbus captain with 20-Something thousand hours in the cockpit. Some of you may know me by my alter ego, “Cap’n Aux,” at my capnaux.com blog.
Needless to say, we’re gonna have some fun here!
On January 15, 2009, an Airbus A320 operating from New York’s LaGuardia to Charlotte experienced an emergency water landing in the Hudson River after multiple bird strikes caused both engines to fail.
Aviation enthusiasts around the world have seen the trailers starring Tom Hanks as Cap’n Sully, and are salivating in anticipation of a good aviation tale well-told.
Judging from the trailers, we may ask, Just how well-told?
As a Captain on the same model airplane (Airbus A320) for the same company (the airline formerly known as US Airways), I think I’m uniquely positioned to give you an educated guess.
Here’s a few tidbits that stand out for me:
- In the Trailer 1 at 00:29, Sully is entering the cockpit, revealing that his uniform, right down to his ID badge, is 100% accurate.
- After the birdstrike, Sully states, “My aircraft.” First Officer Skiles replies, “Your aircraft,” and relinquishes the flight controls to the Captain. This is dead-on accurate. The NTSB crash investigation reports: “At 1527:23, the captain took over control of the airplane, stating, ‘my aircraft.'” Moreover, this “positive transfer” is not only standard CRM (Crew Resource Management) nomenclature, but is also in accordance with the company’s policy requiring positive transfer of aircraft control. (While the Captain may not necessarily take control in such a situation, for whatever reason, Sully did, and the rest is history.)
- Immediately after Sully takes control, Skiles pulls out the QRH—the Quick Reference Handbook. The movie QRH looks exactly like the real thing, and this action is also what the PM (Pilot Monitoring) would do. In the QRH, he would look on the back page for “Immediate Action Items and Exceptions.” There, he would find the Dual Engine Failure Checklist, and turn to it. Skiles did exactly that, according to the NTSB (National Transportation Safety Board) report:
“The first officer indicated that, because he had just completed training, he immediately recognized that the event was an ECAM exception; therefore, he was able to promptly locate the procedure listed on the back cover of the QRH, turn to the appropriate page, and start executing the checklist.”
Unfortunately, the Dual Engine Failure Checklist assumes dual loss at cruise altitude, and is an enormous bugaboo to complete; Sully and Skiles had no hope of sloughing through the Dual Failure tome that day. Indeed, one of the NTSB recommendations was that Airbus create an expedited checklist for dual failure at low altitude.
- Sully’s announcement, “This is the Captain. Brace for impact,” followed by the flight attendants shouting in unison, “Brace for impact! Heads down—stay down!” is again 100% accurate for the brace commands at the time.
The best aviation stories are not about planes, not about the saves, nor the airmanship nor the crashes. They’re about the humans behind the wheel; the heart, soul, and spirit of the machine, without whom an airplane is nothing but a pretty hunk of metal sitting lifeless on the tarmac.
This, I believe, will be where the movie truly shines. For, contrary to Hollywood’s cookie-cutter version of the stoic, steely-eyed, bullet-proof super pilot, in the end we are all human, prone to human error—and human frailty.
No one today plays a better “any man” than Tom Hanks. Like Jimmy Stewart before him, Hanks has a unique, humble way of connecting with the audience, so that we experience the personal journey that he, the character, takes.
Ultimately, this appears to be a character-driven story—that of a professional pilot facing not only an incredible event, but the harrowing aftermath of its investigation.
The toll it takes on himself, his family, and life. Simultaneously—and reluctantly—thrust into the spotlight, hailed as a hero, investigated as a criminal, and all the while second-guessing his own actions. Who among us could handle such pressure?
It appears that the main thrust of the movie will be the crash investigation, which Producer/Director Clint Eastwood claims was somewhat of a witch hunt. While this may be a good premise for the movie—and at times the real players no doubt felt this way—I believe that, in reality, it was not the case.
Any crash investigation requires investigators to leave no stone unturned, with their sole mandate to find the Probable Cause of a crash, for one reason: to prevent another, similar accident in the future. Turning the pilots’ lives upside down would simply be a matter of course.
When telling a story, even a nonfiction one, an author or director must take “artistic license” in order to tell the story in a compelling way, as well as help a general audience understand what could be a complex situation, such as flying a jet airliner.
Get bogged down too much in minutiae of facts, and you begin to lose the audience. As long as the author/writer/director expresses the “flavor” and “essence” of a story, I’m more than happy with it.
In this regard, it appears that Eastwood has nailed it. So, I will give him the benefit of the doubt for the apparent main plot of the “bad guys out to hang the good guys”—but I hope he doesn’t go too far in vilifying what is a very noble profession: air crash investigator.
While the eponymous movie obviously focuses on Sully, I dearly hope that we will also get to know and see some of the rest of the crew who did such a magnificent job that day, especially the cabin crew during the evacuation.
Moreover, First Officer Skiles, has lived in Sully’s shadow ever since, and this is one area I’m a tad concerned with in regards to the movie: all the trailers have Skiles looking surprised at Sully, as the man flies, talks, and lands—essentially a one-man band.
Hollywood—and, frankly, news broadcasters, from CNN to Fox—tend to forget there are TWO fully-qualified, experienced pilots in any airline cockpit, and the First Officer isn’t simply there to serve the captain coffee.
The essence of CRM is for the Captain to fully incorporate the crew—i.e., First Officer, and the cabin crew if relevant, to maximize safety. According to the NTSB report, for example, shortly before landing, Sully asks Skiles, “got any ideas?” to which Skiles replies, “actually not.”
As simple as it may sound, this is the essence of good CRM. Who knows, perhaps the FO may have had a tidbit of knowledge or a brilliant idea that could have saved the day.
(By the way, the actor that plays Skiles, Aaron Eckhart could be his twin brother—good job, Casting and Makeup departments!)
Producer/Director Eastwood has an excellent track record for well-told, accurate stories, and it looks like he took extreme strides to get this one right.
I can’t think of a better man to be in the Captain’s seat for this movie. I have high expectations. So high, I fear, there’s nowhere to go but down in the Hudson…
Come September 9th, we’ll all find out. In any case, prepare to Brace for Impact!
Until next time, This is Cap’n Aux… Signing Off!