Column: Only in America – “Sully”

Columnist A. Miller-Draper on Clint Eastwood’s “Sully”.


The current U.S. presidential election has only a few weeks to go. It has not presented America in a particularly pleasant light. And only God knows what will happen if Trump does end up at the controls.

America-bashing is becoming an all too frequent and favoured pastime for the rest of the world. It’s a nonsense, of course, but it’s hard to retain objectivity, when Donald J Trump is crashing through the undergrowth. The fact is, America is us writ large, all of us.  It is composed of immigrants from all over the world. There’s not a country on the planet that has not sent a son or a daughter, or several, or several million to take up a new life in the ‘land of the free’, and, lest we forget, ‘home of the brave.’

We have so much to be grateful to America for too; they rescued humanity in two World Wars. They have been the engine of growth throughout the world for the past century. Their scientists, entrepreneurs, and doctors continue to make remarkable breakthroughs on behalf of us all. They landed a man on the moon. Yeah, I know, they’re not quite the righteous caped crusader we’d like them to be. They stuffed up Iraq and Afghanistan, as a generation earlier they had carpet-bombed Southeast Asia. There is a dark side. As if we needed Donald J Trump to remind us!

along comes a film like Sully, to let us know that we weren’t wrong to believe in America

But, what I like to think of as the real America is still out there. Don’t lose faith. And then along comes a film like Sully, to let us know that we weren’t wrong to believe still in America. They can do it right.

The story of the “Miracle on the Hudson” is well known to all of us. It happened only seven years ago, on 15 January, 2009. A passenger airline was forced to land on the Hudson River, after sustaining a massive bird strike shortly after takeoff from La Guardia airport in New York. All 155 passengers and crew survived. At the time, it dominated the airwaves and the newspapers all around the world. The plane’s captain, Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger, became an instant celebrity. And a few days later the story was gone, yesterday’s headlines.

The actual event may have remained vivid, however, for many of us. It’s not everyday an incident like that occurs, let alone one that has everyone surviving. And I, for one, have been absolutely thrilled and most grateful to have been so eloquently and entertainingly reminded.

Film is the quintessential American art form. Hollywood talks to humanity. Most of the time, I freely concede, it’s absolute rubbish.  But occasionally it really does come into its own. In Sully, Hollywood has delivered a very genuine ‘tour de force’. Of course, it helps that it’s based on a true story; Captain Sullenberger’s own book, Highest Duty, to be precise. Yet, the entire flight from takeoff to the Hudson River lasted barely five minutes; and an audience still has to stay in their seats for over 90 minutes. Step forward Clint Eastwood; the veteran actor and director is now 86, and he is still right on top of his game.

The tension throughout the film is compellingly sustained by following the subsequent investigative enquiry into the incident, deftly intercutting scenes from the actual flight. In the film we don’t actually touch down on the Hudson till an hour has passed. Tom Hanks plays the title character immaculately. It is a thoroughly professional, polished piece of work, doing justice to the professionalism and expertise of the pilot himself, his first officer, his three cabin crew, the rescuing ferry captains and crews, the air traffic controllers, the New York Police and Fire Department. America in action. And, boy, do I take my hat off to them.

It is a thoroughly professional, polished piece of work

The hero of the piece, Chesley Sullenberger, was born in Texas on January 23, 1951. At the age of 16 he learned to fly an Aeronca 7DC at an airstrip near his home. He entered the U.S. Air Force Academy in 1969 and graduated his class’s top flyer. He served as a fighter pilot between 1975 and 1980, reaching the rank of captain as flight leader and training officer. After his military service, he worked as a pilot for US Airways between 1980 and 2010.

On that day in the winter of early 2009, roughly 100 seconds into the flight, the 66 tonne Airbus A320 lost both engines flying into a flock of Canadian geese. 209 Seconds elapsed from the moment of the bird strike and the engines flaming out, to the plane hitting the water – or as Sully described it at the enquiry: “a controlled water landing.”

The plane began sinking into the freezing Hudson. Most of the passengers climbed out onto the wings, a few took to the river itself. Twice Sully walked the length of the plane to make sure all the passengers had got out safely. He was the last to leave. The first ferry boat on the scene was the Thomas Jefferson.  It took the ferry captain Vincent Lombardi approximately four minutes to reach the plane. Sully was the last to climb onto the ferry. Once on dry land, he remained in uniform, insisting he still had work to do. Not until it was confirmed that all 155 passengers and crew were present and accounted for, did he relax. He had done his duty.

Sully-1

At the subsequent enquiry, an aircraft simulator computer suggested Sully may have made the wrong choice, that one engine still partly worked. With the airport in reach, the computerised protocol would have got them down.  Yet, as the enquiry proceeded it became clear that the computer had got it wrong. Sully had made the right decision.

“I eyeballed it,” he explained in a 60 Minutes interview.  “For 42 years I’ve been making small regular deposits in this bank of experience, education and training. And on January 15, 2009, the balance was sufficient so that I could make a very large withdrawal.”

Only in America.

Thank you, God!

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