Crash Investigators Pan Their Casting as Villains in ‘Sully’

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Retired airline captain Chesley 'Sully' Sullenberger, director Clint Eastwood and actor Tom Hanks attend the 'Sully' New York premiere on Sept. 6, 2016.

Photographer: Jim Spellman/WireImage
  • Miracle on the Hudson movie paints accident probe as unfair
  • National Transportation Safety Board says it wasn’t consulted

In promotional clips for the movie “Sully,” which portrays the so-called Miracle on the Hudson water landing of a jetliner in 2009, there is little doubt about who the villains are: the accident investigators hounding the pilot after his splashdown.

That’s news to the actual investigators at the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board, who gave Captain Chesley Sullenberger high marks in their accident report and credited his quick action that saved lives.

“I think we’re getting the dirty end of the stick here,” said Robert Benzon, a 27-year NTSB veteran who oversaw the investigation before retiring in 2012. “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.”

Not only did the safety board investigators treat Sullenberger respectfully, they took great pains to carefully couch language in the final report so that it didn’t seem critical of a national hero, according to Benzon.

‘Highest Probability’

“The NTSB concludes that the captain’s decision to ditch on the Hudson River rather than attempting to land at an airport provided the highest probability that the accident would be survivable,” the report concluded.

The Jan. 15, 2009, water landing was a most improbable ending to a 208-second emergency. After a flock of geese severely damaged both engines on the Airbus Group SE A320 shortly after it took off from LaGuardia Airport in New York, Sullenberger and copilot Jeffrey Skiles ditched the US Airways plane on the Hudson River.

Despite frigid temperatures and damage to the plane’s undercarriage, only five of the 155 people aboard suffered serious injuries. No one died. Sullenberger, known instantly across the country by his nickname Sully, became an icon.

The movie, which opens in theaters on Friday, was directed by Clint Eastwood and stars Tom Hanks as Sullenberger. It is labeled "based on a true story."

“Until I read the script, I didn’t know the investigative board was trying to paint the picture that he had done the wrong thing,” Eastwood said in a video on the Warner Bros. website. “They were kind of railroading him into, it was his fault. And that wasn’t the case at all.”

In summarizing the movie, Warner Bros.’s website said: “Even as Sully was being heralded by the public and the media for his unprecedented feat of aviation skill, an investigation was unfolding that threatened to destroy his reputation and his career.”

NTSB Statement

The NTSB said in a statement that the drama of Flight 1549 “is a movie-worthy moment in aviation history.”

“The NTSB was not asked to contribute to or participate in the production of ‘Sully’ and as such we were not afforded an opportunity to ensure our actions and words were portrayed with accurate context or reflected our perspective,” the board said.

The board’s mandate requires it to examine all aspects of an accident, including how pilots performed, it said.

“There was no effort to crucify him or embarrass him,” said Malcolm Brenner, a retired NTSB specialist in human behavior who was part of the team that first interviewed Sullenberger in the days after the accident. “If there were questions, it was to learn things.”

Warner Bros.

Brenner, whose job was normally to deconstruct the “disturbing performance” of flight crews who had caused a crash, recalled that he was pleased to have participated in a case in which the two pilots worked well together and made good decisions.

“I personally was very impressed,” he said.

Jack Horner, a Warner Bros. spokesman, didn’t respond to questions about the accuracy of the movie’s portrayal of investigators.

The studio released a statement from Sullenberger saying: “The story being told came from my experiences, and reflects the many challenges that I faced and successfully overcame both during and after the flight. I was involved in the development and am thrilled it’s being brought to the screen.”

Book Renamed

The movie was based on Sullenberger’s 2009 book “Highest Duty: My Search for What Really Matters,” according to Warner Bros. Sullenberger, now a motivational speaker, is promoting the movie on his website and the studio is promoting his book on the movie’s website.

Benzon said he read the book -- since reissued under the title "Sully" with Hanks on the cover -- after it came out and it barely mentioned the NTSB investigation.

According to NTSB records and people who were present during the investigation, Sullenberger and others involved were treated like any other subjects would have been. If anything, the safety board was more deferential and complimentary than usual.

At the NTSB’s investigative hearing, for example, most of the questions to Sullenberger were softballs.

Cabin Announcement

The closest thing to a hard question came from Candace Kolander, a representative of the Association of Flight Attendants union, who took him to task for failing to announce a water landing over the intercom. He had merely instructed the crew and passengers to brace for impact.

Sullenberger said his top priority was keeping anyone from getting injured when the plane hit the water and he worried that flight attendants might have begun putting passengers into life vests and not been braced for impact had he announced a water landing.

“So it was a balancing act for the situation that we faced and the time that we had available,” he said, according to a transcript of the hearing.

The tenor of the June 9, 2009 hearing was typified by Robert Sumwalt, the NTSB board member who was chairing the inquiry. After several questions, Sumwalt said: “I want to thank you very much for your testimony, for being here this morning, and for representing the piloting profession as you do.”

Accident Report

The board’s final report, adopted on May 4, 2010, gave Sullenberger and Skiles credit for making what should have been a horrific accident survivable for all aboard.

As the agency always does in an accident, it put the pilots’ performance under a microscope. The reason was not to assail them, according to Benzon. It’s part of the process of ensuring similar accidents can be prevented.

Among the areas they examined was whether Sullenberger -- who had taken control of the plane in the emergency -- could have made it back to LaGuardia instead of having to make the dangerous water ditching.

While simulations showed it may have been possible to turn back immediately and land at LaGuardia, it wasn’t reasonable to expect any pilot to have done that without taking a few seconds to assess the situation. By then, it was too late to reach the airport and Sullenberger made the most sensible decision, the NTSB concluded in its report.

"The professionalism of the flight crew members and their excellent crew resource management during the accident sequence contributed to their ability to maintain control of the airplane," the report said.

While the report made no findings even approaching a conclusion of pilot error, it did note that Sullenberger’s flight path toward the water was far steeper and faster than what was optimal for a water landing. That led to a hard landing that caused damage to the plane.

“He was right on the ragged edge all the way down,” Benzon said.

Hollywood Accuracy

Sullenberger did so many other things well in a short, chaotic span that there was no thought to find fault with his actions, according to Benzon. In fact, the agency took pains not to seem critical.

“We did a lot of wordsmithing to not distort anything, so to speak, but to make it seem like we weren’t on a witch hunt,” he said.

The tug of war between accuracy and colorful story telling is constant in Hollywood, where writers and directors often struggle to bring to life events as humdrum as computer hacking and mortgage trading.

The fanciful car chase at the Tehran airport didn’t prevent “Argo” from winning a best picture Oscar in 2013. Charges of factual inaccuracies dogged recent films such as “Lincoln,” “Selma” and Eastwood’s 2014 biopic “American Sniper,” which featured a fictional duel between real life marksman Chris Kyle and a fictional rival.

“Any good story has to have a villain,” said Brenner.

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