Image copyright © by Marcus Trahan



I am deeply conflicted about this movie. Tom Hanks is very good, as usual, as the hero of the Miracle on the Hudson. And the depictions of the crisis and how he and his copilot and cabin crew dealt with it are riveting, frightening, even though we all know how it all came out. And I understand that a screenplay has to have some conflict in it, it is almost impossible to make a movie that simply glorifies a story, where it is an unbroken progression from the event to all the plaudits and honors Captain Sullenberger—totally deservedly!—received. But in setting up an antagonist, the National Transportation Safety Board has been unfairly demonized, even slandered, in my opinion and that of many, many others. So though I enjoyed the film, I have to defend them here.

See, I know a little about the NTSB. While doing research for Millennium I was flown east to D.C. and spent several days touring the headquarters and speaking to a lot of the investigators. I have handled some of the horribly battered “black boxes.” (And it pisses me off every time that are called that; they are bright orange, dammit, to make them easier to see!) I have listened to some of the last minutes from Cockpit Voice Recorders (something it is impossible to do with a dry eye) and read the transcripts from many others. I have read a dozen incident reports. And I was deeply impressed by the level of dedication shown by every person I met. These are not political appointees, this is not the Federal Aviation Administration, which often functions as a butt-boy for the airlines and manufacturers. The NTSB can only make recommendations, and it is up to the FAA as to whether or not they are implemented, or whether it is done in a timely fashion. Lives have been lost in the past because some safety measure was deemed too costly. This was a source of frustration and anger to these people, but of course they kept at it.

And let me make one thing clear. Impartial as the NTSB is, and should be, there is no way in the world that that panel was going to find Sully guilty of negligence in that “water landing.” The airlines speak of water landings when giving you that little pre-flight talk, but you know how often they are successful? You know how often anyone survives a water landing? Try never. Or the next closest thing, anyway. You think they were actually going to crucify Sully because simulations had shown that it would have been possible to make a return to La Guardia, or press on to Teterboro? Don’t make me laugh. There is no way that was going to happen. Sully was already a national hero. Even if he might have made a slight miscalculation, the report would have been written to show that he did the right thing. He saved the lives of everyone on board! It’s as simple as that.

It was easy to show that while under ideal conditions, with pilots in the simulator who knew exactly what was about to happen and thus responded instantly with the correct decision, it would have been possible to have turned that plane around to glide it to La Guardia. But in the real world there was not a single pilot who made it even close. In thirty seconds Sully and Skiles analyzed a blizzard of information, such as the fact that both engines were ruined, such as immediately turning on the Auxiliary Power Unit, before the recommended sequence in the Airbus emergency procedures book. (At first the Flight Data Recorder told the investigators that one engine was still working. When they brought it up from the bottom of the river they found out it was totaled. Scrap metal.)

So what we see of the investigation is largely bullshit. The panel is portrayed as accusatory, even hostile, in their questioning. Sully has to come up with an explanation for his actions that finally shows them the light. This is not how it happened at all. They were on his side from the very beginning. They recognized the incredible thing he had done, something that possibly no other pilot in the world could have pulled off. So what does the writer of this movie do? He goes against the express request of Sully himself who, after reading the script, wanted the names of the board members fictionalized. But in the movie, the name plates on the tables identify the real names of the real people. This is unconscionable, in my opinion. These people are angry, and with very good reason. How would you like to see yourself portrayed as a petty, niggling government chair-warmer when you were actually doing your job to the best of your abilities? Not very much, I’ll wager.