Going Direct: Sully Movie’s Scariest Message

By the time you read this, there might not be quite as much buzz surrounding the remarkable film by Academy Award®-winning director Clint Eastwood and starring Academy Award®-winning actor Tom Hanks, which chronicles the so-called “Miracle on the Hudson.” Then, again, with award season getting underway, the film might be generating a different kind of buzz altogether.

As everyone knows by now, the incident in question and the subject of the film was the short soggy journey of US Airways Flight 1549 captained by Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger. With the assistance of his crew, Sully brought the Airbus A320 to a safe landing on the Hudson after both engines were destroyed after ingesting much of a flock of unwitting Canada geese.

The miracle, we pilots know, wasn’t a miracle at all, but a remarkably skillful job of quick thinking and some exceptional airmanship. Sully’s skills and the work of his skillful crew, including first officer Jeff Skiles, represent the epitome of professionalism and great training put to its proper use.

As has been pointed out repeatedly in the mainstream press, the problem with developing a Sully movie is that the entire flight took only a few minutes—so the film has to focus on other things. In this case, it zeroes in on all the things that happened after the forced landing, from the media hoopla to the investigatory circus. It does a great job of doing just that.

The most frightening part of the film to me, by far, wasn’t the emergency. We’re trained as pilots to react just as Sully did—to make a quick and reasonable judgment and execute the plan to the best of our abilities. It helped that he had a first officer in Jeff Skiles who was a talented and capable aviator in his own right. Who among us would have performed as well is open to debate, usually post-flight over a couple of beers, but there’s no doubt that Sully nailed this one.

As dramatic as the splashy arrival on the Hudson of Flight 1549 was, the really scary part to me was Washington’s reaction to the incident. Though the movie reportedly takes some liberties with the degree of the animosity coming from the NTSB, the Board’s immediate impulse was not to shut up, pin a medal on Sully and plan the parade, as it should have done, but to second-guess his judgment. Read that again. I know, how could such a thing happen?

Sadly, it happens all the time. It happened to me, in fact. Luckily, the outcome was anticlimactic and the only person at risk at any time was myself, and that risk was microscopic.

Here’s what happened. A few years ago, I was on a flight from Austin, Texas, to Albuquerque, New Mexico, in a Cirrus SR22 turbo with the Tornado Alley conversion (done at the Cirrus factory) of the Continental IO-550 310 hp engine. The conversion takes a normally aspirated 550 and turns it into a turbo. It’s a hugely popular conversion, but on this particular airplane, I experienced some minor rough running on one occasion.

We had the airplane checked over and all was determined to be fine, which generally means the mechanics can’t duplicate the problem. I flew it afterward a few times and found I couldn’t duplicate the problem, thankfully, either.

Until my Albuquerque trip, that is. I was en route on an IFR flight plan climbing up to my cruise altitude, 16,000 feet, mostly likely, and approaching 10,000 feet when the engine started running a little rough. My immediate reaction was to check the engine gauges—no red or yellow readings—adjust the mixture, switch fuel tanks, ensure the fuel pump was on and operating, and that I had no warning messages on the PFD. Everything read okay. But it was definitely a little off.

But I also knew I was flying a route on which there were stretches with few, if any, available airports to divert to and that the last few hundred miles of my trip were over very high terrain. It was more risk than I wanted to assume.

So I did what seemed the right thing to do. I called Houston Center, requested a change to my flight plan and advised that I wanted to go back to Austin Bergstrom (KAUS).

The controller, of course, did exactly what he’d been trained to do, and he asked me why the change to my flight plan. I advised him that it was nothing big, just the engine running a little rough. When he asked if I needed to have the equipment ready, I told him immediately and in no uncertain terms that I did not. I made clear that this was merely a precautionary return to base and that there was no emergency in any way, shape or form.

Within 10 minutes, I got handed off to Austin Approach, and I could tell immediately that they had me on their radar, both literally and figuratively. They gave me an expedited traffic pattern to the long runway, Rwy 35 Left—I assume because it was closer for the responders to this non-emergency. And, sure enough, as I descended for my base leg, the equipment—you remember, the equipment I expressly said I didn’t need—was there waiting for me.

And after a perfectly normal landing in the first 1,500 feet of the available runway with no engine issues, I taxied back to base—a long taxi, as they’d given me the farthest possible runway from where my plane was tied down.

And, sure enough, when I finally got to where the plane was tied down, I shut down the engine and gathered up my stuff, the trucks were there and so was the fire captain with paperwork in hand, you know, paperwork for the incident that I had in no uncertain terms told was not an incident. I was afraid they were going to try to get me to pay for something—they didn’t, which was a big relief.

The airplane I was flying was with PlaneSmart, a fractional company that sold shares in Cirrus SR22s (and, still does, among many other services). I was lucky that there was a second, pretty much identical SR22 that was available, so I swapped keys, filed another IFR flight plan, preflighted the plane and headed off.

When I got to Albuquerque, I got a call on my cellphone. It was the FAA, and the guy behind the phone was an inspector out of the San Antonio FSDO. He started by asking some details—what had happened, what were the symptoms of the rough-running engine, etc.—but pretty soon his questions began to get accusatory, and the insinuation was that I was flying recklessly by not landing right away instead of returning to Austin, which was 20 minutes down the road. I explained that the engine was running just a little rough and it wasn’t an emergency.

But it soon became clear that he had an agenda, to get me, in essence, to rat myself out. He wanted to know how rough the engine was running, how much of a power loss was there—I stupidly came up with some very low number instead of just keeping my mouth shut—and he wanted to know why in the world didn’t I land as soon as practicable, his tone clearly indicating that my actions landed me in with the worst and most reckless criminals.

I felt like an idiot, not for how I’d managed the flight—I didn’t think I’d done anything wrong, I still don’t—but for giving the inspector any details at all. I’d always been told to be parsimonious with the details you provide the FAA under such circumstances, and when I told him I’d like to respond to his questions later (after I’d had a chance to speak with an aviation attorney), he turned up the pressure and informed me loudly and aggressively, “This is an FAA investigation, a Federal investigation!” and, in essence, told me that my delaying answering his questions was only going to make matters worse for me.

In retrospect, the mistake I made was in putting myself in a position where the FAA could insinuate itself into the situation, because in a completely non-heroic way it was just as it happened to Sully. I made a judgment as PIC, everything worked out great, and the Feds still came knocking, not to congratulate me on my risk management skills, but to try to violate me for something, anything.

What I should have done is wrong to do, but it’s what I’d do today, thanks to the FAA’s response. I should have quietly canceled IFR, told the controller the reason was that the weather was just too nice to fly IFR, descended to a VFR altitude, turned for home and not said anything to anybody about the non-problem.

If I had done that, instead of telling the truth, everything would have turned out fine. It would have been terrible airmanship, true, but the FAA has taught me a lesson, that when it comes to making judgments, they’ll always be behind you, that is, behind you and second-guessing every move you make.

Sully merely saved the lives of 155 people. The Feds didn’t seem to care. They apparently saw the situation as an opportunity to violate a pilot, who, in such cases, they apparently see as the enemy.

In my case, the “Federal Case” was dropped for lack of anything resembling an actual violation. But it did give that inspector the chance to momentarily wield his power in the way too many of these guys like best, arbitrarily.

What’s not arbitrary is how sensitively director/producer Clint Eastwood and the writers of the movie captured the aftermath of the ditching. That’s because the film is based on the autobiography of Captain Sullenberger himself, with co-author Jeffrey Zaslow. Even more impressive is how well it captured the regulatory quagmire that any pilot can find themselves in after an incident or a mishap, even after they do everything right.

Photo Credit: Courtesy of Warner Bros.

If you want more commentary on all things aviation, go to our Going Direct blog archive.

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