Sully is Clint Eastwood’s September 2016 film about the pilot that landed an Airbus A320 passenger airplane in the Hudson River off Manhattan on the afternoon of January 15, 2009. Both engines of the plane failed after a flock of geese collided with the plane shortly after takeoff. All aboard survived. The surprising “success” of the response was primarily attributed to the calm reaction of Pilots Captain Chesley Sullenberger (Sully) and First Officer Jeffrey Skiles.
The core conflict in Sully involves the tension between the seemingly obvious success of the response to the engine failure and the second guessing that occurs during formal investigations of any event, which in this case was being performed by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB). The film also portrays Captain Sully questioning his actions, with dream sequences showing alternate outcomes, such as the plane crashing in the heart of the business district of New York City. Had Captain Sully been found to have erred in landing the plane in the Hudson, his career as a pilot and aeronautic safety expert would have ended, resulting in personal ruination.
The movie is relatively short. As a movie-goer, I would not expect Tom Hanks to play a protagonist who was ultimately found to be a failure. Yet Clint Eastwood does heighten the conflict enough that the pain the main character experiences feels real while we watch the film.
Sully provides viewers a chance to experience the roller coaster ride of fear and despair with Captain Sully while knowing that at the end the ride will come to a safe and happy ending.
In Sully, the investigators question whether it was necessary for Captain Sully to land in the Hudson, a landing that destroyed the plane, caused various injuries, and necessitated significant expense on the part of rescuers and responders.
First, we learn the airlines have data suggesting the left engine was still functional, indicating that the plane could have returned to a nearby airport.
Second, we are told that computer simulations show that even with the dual engine failure, it should have been possible for the plane to successfully returned to runways at either La Guardia or Teterboro airports.
Captain Sully requests that live pilots attempt to land the plane in the simulators. Here again, it is shown that the pilots could have reached a runway.
Realism in Second Guessing the Past
In Sully, Captain Sully points out that it was unrealistic in the simulations to presume that a decision could have been made immediately following the bird strike. The NTSB asks the live pilots to repeat the simulations with a 25 second delay inserted between the time of bird strike and the decision to return to a nearby runway. With that extra delay, it is demonstrated that an attempt to land on a runway would have resulted in total loss of life for all aboard, as well as the possibility of additional casualties on the ground. Other factors come to light that validate Captain Sully’s account of the incident. Thus Captain Sully is entirely vindicated.
Wouldn’t it be Nice…
In watching Sully, I thought of the ongoing controversies regarding Joseph Smith. Any number of armchair theorists have presumed that Joseph erred greatly, that another set of actions would have resulted in all the good Joseph did without any of the bad.
I could wish that Joseph’s actions could be distilled into something that could be modeled in a simulator. Failing that, I wish we could have a total view of all that was going on in Nauvoo between 1840 and 1845. Specifically, I wish I had complete knowledge of the period of time Emma Smith referred to when she said, “the time had been when charity had covered a multitude of sins…”
I opine that Joseph faced terrors of which we are largely unaware. I suspect if we knew the totality of what was going on, we would find Joseph’s actions to have been far more praiseworthy in the main than most currently grant.
Meanwhile, we have concise set pieces like Sully, where enough of the truth can be known with certainty to support a conclusive determination regarding whether an act was praiseworthy or fundamentally flawed.