On 15th January 2009, Captain Chesley Sullenberger landed US Airways Flight 1549 on the Hudson River in New York city after both engines of the plane were struck by birds. Seven years later, they made a film about it, with none other than Tom Hanks in the lead role.
Our editorial is completely independent. We may receive commission when you buy products or services linked from this page, but this never affects what we write about.
That film has just landed (safely) on Netflix – introducing the story to a massive new audience in the UK.
But is the film entirely true to the story? What changes have been made for narrative reasons? Here’s how the real thing went down.
Who is Captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger?
The 68-year-old is a now-retired pilot, who served at US Airways for thirty years between 1980 and 2010. He also served as a United States Air Force fighter pilot, attaining the rank of Captain.
How did he land a plane on the Hudson River?
The event that became known, in US TV news parlance, as “The Miracle on the Hudson”, took place on 15th January 2009. The whole ordeal, from take-off to landing, was over in six minutes.
Sully was flying a US Airways plane bound for Seattle Washington, which had taken off from LaGuardia Airport in New York City at 3.24pm. Shortly after take-off, the plane struck a flock of Canada geese northeast of the George Washington Bridge, and lost power in both engines. Passengers reportedly heard loud bangs and saw flames emerging from the aircraft, which understandably sent them into a panic.
The pilot’s windshield was greatly obscured by the bodies of the dead birds. Nevertheless, Sully took control while his co-pilot, Jeffrey Skiles (played in the film by Aaron Eckhart) unsuccessfully attempted to restart the engines.
After discussing potential emergency landing options with Air Traffic Control, Sully realised that the plane would be unable to make it to any of them, and said “we can’t do it… we’re gonna be in the Hudson”.
On its way into the water, the plane passed less than 900 feet above the George Washington Bridge. Sullenberger told his crew and passengers to “brace for impact”, and at 3.31pm, landed in the middle of the Hudson. Flight attendants said it was a “hard landing”. However, incredibly, all 155 people aboard the plane survived, though there were five serious injuries, and many of them were treated for hypothermia.
Why was Sully investigated?
Sullenberger said that he wasn’t sure he had made the right decision in the months after landing the flight.
“We weren’t certain for many months after the investigation that we really had made the right decisions at every juncture and would ultimately be vindicated,” Sullenberger told Newsweek. “Most people don’t understand that part of the story.”
That same year, the National Transportation Safety Board, US congress and the Pilot’s Union all conducted separate investigations into the flight, and Sully’s decision to land in the Hudson rather than attempt to take it back to a nearby airport.
The main focus of the film is the National Transportation Safety Board’s investigation. According to The Guardian, it is procedure for the NTSB to investigate all possible contributing factors to a crash.
In 2016, the organisation complained that it had been painted in the wrong light in the film.