We recently saw “Sully” a film produced and directed by Clint Eastwood about the forced landing of US Airlines flight 1549 in the Hudson river on January 15, 2009. It is a thrilling and very moving film about the crew, the passengers, and the first responders whose combined efforts saved all 155 people on the flight. Tom Hanks plays the role of Captain Chesley Sullenberger (Sully) with the quiet calm and dignity that fits the pilot who became an overnight hero. The rest of the cast is equally good. I especially liked the two flight attendants who rose to the occasion as they prepared the passengers for impact.
Actually, you might say that the film is a tribute to the competence of all those involved. At one point the Captain says that over his forty-year career he had transported over 1000000 passengers safely, but people now call him a hero because of one crash landing. At the end he says to his co-pilot, “We were just doing our job.”
In addition to the drama of the emergency landing on water and the subsequent rescue of the passengers from the almost frozen waters, the film centers around the drama of the subsequent inquiry by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) into the performance of the Captain and Co-Pilot on the flight. Apparently, computers indicated that the plane could have made it back safely to La Guardia airport, and that one engine was still functional.The investigation showed that the experienced and capable pilot was correct.
Some have complained that Director Eastwood went a little overboard in portraying the NTSB examiners as out to establish “pilot error” in the case of flight 1549. It is true that the NTSB examiners were portrayed as inquisitors or bad guys, but to my mind it seemed as if they were also just doing their job.
Speaking about doing one’s job, I was especially pleased with the depiction of the air traffic controllers trying to deal with the extremely stressful “Mayday” situation. It brought back memories of my first real job with the Federal Aviation Agency back in 1964. I had taken the Civil Service exam as a fall back in case I would not be able to land a teaching job. Not too long after I was surprised when a letter came asking me to interview for an entry level management analysis position at New York’s Idlewild airport. The name had yet to be changed to honor the assassinated President Kennedy.
Although I had no idea what a management analyst was or did, I was offered the position, and took it. I found myself in a small office on the airport grounds with a bureau chief and four senior analysts. I soon came to see that I was in the least significant part of the vast organization in charge of ensuring flight safety in the ever more crowded American skies. I believe that we were distrusted or regarded as nuisances by the people doing the job in the control towers and flight control centers.
I remember, on one occasion, visiting one of those centers on Long Island. Seeing air traffic controllers hunched over their primitive radar screens watching little white blips apparently approaching each other was an experience I have never forgotten. I found out that it was one of the most stressful jobs in the world. Most of the controllers were former Air Force pilots which perhaps explains the way they would talk with and bond with the pilots in the air. The job was so stressful that most were forced to take early retirement. Insurance companies believed that the controllers had such a short life expectancy and would not offer them life insurance. When one died on the job, all the other controllers in the country would chip in to provide funds for his widow.
These men, and they were all men in those days, were unsung heroes and Clint Eastwood did a good job in giving them recognition. Although I only stayed with the FAA for one year, I have never lost my respect for them and the job they did. I must confess that I sympathized with them when President Reagan fired the controllers when they attempted to strike.
However, I have no sympathy for anyone involved in the making of the films shown in the innumerable coming attractions we had to witness before the start of “Sully”. In particular, the violence and destruction depicted was graphic, offensive, and totally over the top. The weaponry employed by the so-called heroes of these films is incredible. How can Hollywood movie makers pretend to be for gun control when they employ so many assault weapons in their films? These films are not a reflection of the violence in our society, but a training ground for the potentially violent.