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Friday, May 20, 2022

May 20, 2022: Aviation Histories: Sully

[On May 20-21, 1932, Amelia Earhart became the second person, and the first woman, to fly solo nonstop across the Atlantic. So for the 90th anniversary of that historic feat, I’ll AmericanStudy a handful of aviation histories, leading up to a special weekend post on the myths and realities of Earhart!]

On the quiet lessons of an averted disaster, and the recent film that didn’t quite learn them.

No disaster is a good disaster (as I traced at length in this series inspired by the 80th anniversary of the Hindenburg fire and crash), but there’s something particularly frightening and horrific about an airplane crash. Perhaps it’s because the very act of flying in a man-made machine still feels (at least to this AmericanStudier) somewhat artificial and even unbelievable, and thus that crashes (rare as they certainly are) feel always possible or close. Perhaps it’s because, compared to most natural disasters or other kinds of transporation accidents, a plane crash feels so assuredly fatal for all involved. Perhaps it’s due to all the continuing mysteries associated with plane crashes, even in an era when we believe we understand technology so well: the Bermuda Triangle, the disappearance of flights like the recent and still-missing Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, those infamous black boxes and the stories they do and don’t tell. In any case, plane crashes are uniquely unnerving (to say the least)—which is why, when the actions of a heroic pilot like Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger can help avert a potential crash and save the lives of all on board, they feel particularly impressive.

The details of Sully’s rescue are pretty well known: he was piloting a US Airways flight out of New York’s LaGuardia Airport on January 15, 2009 when a flock of Canada geese collided with his plane, damaging both engines; Sully and air traffic controllers discussed returning to LaGuardia or trying for New Jersey’s Teterboro Airport, but decided both options were too risky and opted for an emergency water landing in the Hudson river; he pulled off that very tricky landing and saved the lives of all 155 passengers and crew. What’s perhaps less well known is that Sully wasn’t just a pilot with nearly 30 years of commercial flying experience; he was also a very experienced instructor and investigator, having provided aerial combat training for pilots during the Vietnam War, and then serving during his commercial flying career as a pilot instructor, an Air Line Pilots Association safety chairman and accident investigator, and an accident investigator for the National Transportation Safety Board. All of which is to say, Sully’s decisions and actions in January 2009 weren’t simply the result of quick thinking or good instincts or bravery (although all those factors were in play); they were also the product of decades of instruction and training, of investigations and expertise in both aviation and crashes. None of that is to take away from what was required of Sully at that particular moment—but I would argue that a career of teaching and learning provided the impressive preparation and tools that Sully was then able to utilize in the most significant minutes of his career and life.

I’ll admit to not having had the chance to see Clint Eastwood’s recent film Sully (2016), starring Tom Hanks as Sullenberger, but from everything I’ve seen and read about the film, it seems to have not taken that lesson of the “Miracle on the Hudson” to heart much at all. Perhaps believing that Sully’s crash landing was either too well known or too anti-climactic to provide sufficient dramatic tension for the film, Eastwood and his screenwriter Todd Komarnicki apparently (again, going on reviews and responses here—feel free to offer corrections in comments!) decided to turn National Transportation Safety Board crash investigators (ie, folks in the same role Sully had performed many times) into villains, out to second-guess Sully’s actions and to threaten and potentially destroy his reputation and career. Besides ramping up the dramatic tension, this choice aligns the film with Eastwood’s overarching perspective as a filmmaker (and, it seems, a person), which often pits heroic individual figures against frustrating and even vindictive institutions and bureaucracies. Clint’s of course entitled to feel however he pleases, and to tell the stories he wants as an artist—but to my mind, the story of Sully and his heroic rescue reveals precisely the opposite lesson: that institutions and communal efforts can help prepare us for the hardest moments, not in opposition to what we can and must do as individuals but as a vital complement to and training for those occasions for bravery and heroism. Now that I think about it, I think that’d make for a pretty good story too.

Special post this weekend,


PS. What do you think? Other aviation histories or stories you’d share?

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