On January 15, 2009 Sully Sullenberger was an airplane captain with forty-two years experience piloting a plane on a routine run from New York’s LaGuardia Airport to a stopover at Charlotte Douglas International Airport. The next day he was a worldwide hero, an instant celebrity.
Shortly after take-off his plane was disabled by a flock of Canadian Geese who flew into the engines, knocking out the plane’s navigating system. In just under four minutes Sullenberger assessed the situation and, realizing there was no time to turn back, made the decision to land the craft on the Hudson River. The risky landing was successful and all 155 passengers and crew survived with only minor injuries.
To this day the now-retired pilot says when he flies “other passengers often tell me, ‘I feel so much safer now that you’re on the airplane with us.’ I’m not quite sure why they do, but I’m just glad they do.”
The Miracle on the Hudson, as the New York press dubbed it, is now the subject of Sully, a biopic from director Clint Eastwood and star Tom Hanks.
The pilot says, “Watching the film, especially in the IMAX format makes you feel like you’re on that flight with us,” but doesn’t bring back the anxiety of the day for him.
“Enough time has passed,” he says, “and I’ve had enough time to process this and make it a part of me and not something that just happened to me. I don’t have quite the same emotions I had during that day, that flight, but the very first time I saw this film with my family it was a very emotional experience for all of us. The second time I watched the film I was able to take it in as more of a usual movie going experience and see some of the things I wasn’t able to see the first time.”
As for having Oscar winner Hanks portraying him Sullenberger says, “We talked in some detail about the script and the obligation he felt to get it right because after the film was completed I would be going back to living my life and would have to live with however he portrayed me on screen.”
Now that the movie is finished he laughs, “It is a weird experience to see someone else onscreen portraying you and speaking words you actually spoke.”
Sullenberger’s story doesn’t end with the landing. In the years since he has been named one of Time magazine’s 100 Most Influential Heroes and Icons, written bestselling books and become a spokesman for St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. It’s a whirlwind that changed his life forever.
“My family and I think of this story in two phases. There was the trauma of that flight itself and then the trauma of suddenly becoming a world recognized public figure. Once my name had been discovered by the press an onslaught, a tsunami of attention happened very quickly. Within a few months we had received 50,000 communications. Emails, letters, requests. The press was camped outside our house for ten days. It was just overwhelming. It very quickly required finding a new way of living this life as public figures. We had to become more complete versions of ourselves to be able to do that.”