‘Sully’ felt too real

Local aviation folks react to a film about a miracle landing and a grueling evacuation

Tom Hanks in Sully
Tom Hanks in Sully

Back in my day, it was called Air-Sea Rescue. We Northwest Airlines stewardess/steward trainees were taught to launch rubber life rafts into the water and evacuate passengers during a “ditching,” or water landing.

Seeing it actually “happen” in the recent movie, Sully, was jarring.

I shivered as the huge airliner went down, and “felt” the hard, hard landing on the Hudson River. Tears came to my eyes and streamed down my cheeks as the cabin crew waded through knee-deep water and herded terrified passengers, including a small child, into the rafts and onto the wings.

It could have been me.

Directed by Clint Eastwood, with Tom Hanks in the starring role of Sully, the movie is based on an actual incident.

On Jan. 15, 2009, US Airways Capt. Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger was forced to make an emergency landing on the Hudson River after a flock of Canada geese disabled both engines of the commuter airliner he was piloting just after takeoff from LaGuardia Airport in New York.

I wasn’t alone

I soon discovered several other stewardess friends also cried during the ditching scene when they watched the film, including Gail Dierks. Having flown military charters much of her career, Dierks’ passengers likely would have been troops returning home from a tour of duty in the 1990s during the Gulf War in Saudi Arabia, and a landing would’ve been made on the Indian Ocean, not the Hudson.

Bill Marchessault is still flying. Marchessault, who flew 35 years for Northwest, today works lead on domestic routes for Delta Air Lines. He chooses to work exclusively on the Sully aircraft, the A-320 Airbus.

“The evacuation scene really hit home,” he said. “I could relate to what was going on, and wondered how I would have directed the passengers. Would I have handled things the same way?”

All 155 passengers and the crew survived with only minor injuries. The headlines screamed: “Miracle on the Hudson.”

Was it the right choice?

Sullenberger became a national hero. Even so, the National Transportation Safety Board was required to hold an inquiry.

The left engine was still running at idle, which theoretically could have provided enough power for him to fly the plane to LaGuardia or to Teterboro Airport.

Retired Northwest Airlines Boeing 727 Capt. Ron Kenmir debunked that theory: “On takeoff from Kansas City on a cold winter morning some years ago, our engines ingested massive ice from the top of the cabin, not unlike a flock of geese. All thrust on the No. 2 engine was lost, but it was still technically running, so I didn’t secure it. Sully may have had a running engine, but no thrust. The river was a better choice than the New Jersey swamps or the buildings of New York City. Great job! Bravo!”

Kenmir added, “The ‘real’ copilot on Sully’s flight, Jeff Skiles, told a friend of mine the movie was pretty accurate. He’d know. He was there!”

And, in essence, so was I.

As Sully ended and the long list of credits began, Tierney Sutton sang the movie’s lovely theme song, We’re All Flying Home, I cried all over again.

Carol Hall lives in Woodbury. She’s a longtime freelance writer, a University of Minnesota graduate and a former Northwest Airlines stewardess. Send comments and questions to [email protected].