If Tom Hanks had been at the controls, the Miracle on the Hudson wouldn’t have had the same Hollywood ending, to hear it from the star.
The two-time Oscar winner and his on-screen co-pilot Aaron Eckhart got a crash-course in how to avoid wrecking while landing a crippled plane in a river in order to play Capt. Chesley Sullenberger and First Officer Jeffrey Skiles in “Sully.”
The real-life hero pilot helped them earn their wings.
“Sully flew the same 208 seconds and landed on the fake Hudson,” Hanks told the Daily News. “Then I did, as did Aaron. Then the programmers had us try for a simulated landing at La Guardia, but we crashed on the approach.
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“Such things happen in simulators.”
That such things did not happen on Jan. 15, 2009 after a flock of birds struck US Airways Flight 1549 during takeoff from LaGuardia Airport — disabling both engines — makes for a cinematic feel-good story. All 155 souls on board survived the emergency landing and were rescued from the frigid waters between Manhattan and New Jersey by commuter ferries.
But a whole other drama unfolded behind closed doors months later — the subject of the Clint Eastwood-directed “Sully,” which opens Friday.
The National Transportation Safety Board convened to determine whether Sullenberger and Skiles were reckless in not attempting to return to LaGuardia or land at nearby Teterboro Airport. Early simulations that suggested there was enough thrust for a return seemed damning.
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“It wasn’t until May of 2009 that Jeff Skiles and I heard for the first time the cockpit recorder,” Sullenberger told the Daily News. “Until more of the investigation was completed, we didn’t know for sure that we had understood this crisis accurately.
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“We didn’t know if we made the choice at every juncture that led to the best outcome. Ultimately, the investigators did find that was the case. But for many months, we didn’t know that and we were waiting for the other shoe to drop.”
The pilots faced the potential loss of their licenses — or worse.
“If I was allowed to fly again, (I could) still have to live with the stigma of not having done it right,” Sullenberger said. “It was a very real threat to us professionally if we had done anything less than our best at every point.”
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The suits, though, weren’t behind the controls to feel the plane drop at a rate equivalent to two stories per second during a little over three minutes. And the pilots in the simulators weren’t facing the chaos that led to the desperate decision.
“The only training we had gotten for a water landing was a theoretical classroom discussion,” said Sullenberger, who has since retired from flying commercially. “Even though we never trained for this, even though we had never done it before, I was confident based on a lifetime of education, training, experience and judgment that I could find a way to solve each of these problems. I was confident I could land on water. I just didn’t know how long the airplane would float.
“That’s why I brought it down on the river where I did, because having visited Manhattan many times, having visited the Intrepid Museum there before, I knew that’s where the ferry terminals were between New York and New Jersey. That’s the only place in the entire area where rescue could happen fast enough on such a cold day.”
The choppy waters of Hollywood tested Sullenberger’s poise, too, when he sought to bring his memoir, “Highest Duty: My Search for What Really Matters,” to the big screen.
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His friend Harrison Ford, a fellow flying aficionado, helped with the landing.
The A-lister brought the autobiography to industry heavyweight Frank Marshall, who optioned the book with fellow producer Allyn Stewart. Hanks, not Ford, ended up boarding the project — and quickly discovered it would take more than a mustache and hair dye to portray his subject.
“I drove up to Sully’s house at 12:58 p.m. for a 1 o’clock meeting, and the man commented that being on time was impressive,” said Hanks. “Good thing there was no traffic.”
Entering the Sullenbergers’ San Francisco-area home, Hanks spied a copy of the screenplay on the table, dog-eared, marked up with highlighted passages and plastered with post-its.
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“He had notes on scenes I was not in, but wanted me to know nonetheless,” Hanks remarked.
Details matter to the veteran pilot who managed to glide his powerless plane into a never-before-attempted water landing with the wings almost perfectly level — he still laments the one-and-a-half degree differential between the right wing and the left.
“Harrison and I were talking about what it’s like to have someone make a film of your life and he said it’s got to be weird. He said, ‘It still sometimes takes me a year to watch a film that I’ve made,’” Sullenberger said.
It could have been worse than weird. Sully is pals with Al Haynes, the pilot who managed to crash land United Airlines Flight 232 in Sioux City, Iowa, in 1989. He saved 185 of the 296 people on board with almost no control over a plane crippled by the loss of all its hydraulics systems.
When a TV movie was made a few years later, Charlton Heston was cast to play Haynes — at least, a version who saved the day all by himself. That rankled the real-life pilot, who’d long credited the collaboration of four crew members in the cockpit for the improbable landing.
“In the TV movie, Charlton Heston had most of the lines, where actually it was an ongoing, rapid-fire conversation among the four of them in the cockpit,” said Sullenberger. “So Tom Hanks made a note, ‘Charlton Heston,’ in the margin of the script for ‘Sully’ to remind him to make sure (the Miracle on the Hudson) was seen as a professional, collaborative effort.”
Highlighting that teamwork was Sullenberger’s main concern for “Sully.” He shares credit for his success with Skiles, the three flight attendants who kept calm in the cabin, the passengers and the ferry boat captains. Those details mean the world to him.
It might well have been easier for Sullenberger to stay grounded after landing his airplane in the Hudson River than while watching the Hollywood recreation of the event.
Visiting the set on the Universal Studios lot in Burbank, Calif., with his wife, Lorrie (played by Laura Linney in the movie), the pilot witnessed a simulation of the water rescue in an artificial lake once used for one of the “Jaws” sequels.
The couple watched in awe as a real US Airways Airbus A320 — just like the one Sullenberger guided to safety that January day — was lowered into the water in front of a blue screen backdrop on which the New York skyline would be digitally added during post-production.
“They had 200 people on the set, including the actors standing on the wings and sitting in the rafts,” said Sullenberger. “Some of the extras had been standing on the wing knee-deep in water in this lake as they were filming parts of this rescue.
“And at one point during the action, one of the women extras on the left wing ultimately saw me watching this and went, ‘Sully, we’re cold! Will you come and rescue us?’”Send a Letter to the Editor