A Career Pilot Looks at Sully

  • Sept. 14, 2016, 4:29 p.m.

Airplane in the sky

Ken Carson is director of the University of Oklahoma’s Aviation program, which is celebrating 75 years of flight training this year. Carson has served OU in this capacity for nearly a decade. Prior to that, he was a pilot for 23 years in the U.S. Air Force, commanding WC-130 (weather reconnaissance) and C-5 Galaxy instructor/evaluator aircraft, flying most of those years over the world’s oceans. He recently saw the new Clint Eastwood-directed movieSully, which opened nationwide on Friday. He viewed the film at the IMAX in Moore.

As a professional pilot for the last 35 years, I was eager to see the new movie Sully, the true story of the forced ditching of disabled US Airways flight 1549 in the Hudson River in New York City. Dubbed at the time as the “Miracle on the Hudson,” the airliner had 155 passengers on board and was the talk of the entire world in January 2009. From my perspective, the movie was spot on for technical accuracy.

Sully stars Tom Hanks as US Airways Captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger and Aaron Eckhart as co-pilot Jeff Skiles. Obviously, the movie focuses on Sully and his experiences and reactions before, during and after that fateful flight. But director Clint Eastwood was very accurate in depicting almost all aspects of the incident, from the actors’ portrayal on the flight deck to the cabin crew’s actions, to the ditching procedures. To my mind, the 96-minute film made for one of the most realistic portrayals ever on the big screen.

What the movie made me think about was the deep commitment of the professionals who make up our aviation system. It also reminded me of many unseen elements that make our airlines safe, elements that passengers frequently take for granted like high functioning teamwork, personal integrity, professionalism and character—and the training that equips aviation professionals. These are professionals who, as Captain Sullenberger humbly says, are “just doing our job.”

The procedures carried out by Sullenberger, Skiles and the air traffic controller have been honed through initial and annual industry standardized crew resource management (CRM) training during which crew members conduct Line Orientated Flight Training (LOFT), simulator sessions that airlines and Department of Defense crews practice annually.

This training enhances crew procedure standardization and crew leadership and teamwork during simulated inflight and ground emergencies. Such training really pays off in a case like flight 1549. CRM training and education came about in the 1980s and is one of the many factors responsible for the outstanding teamwork we see in today’s aviation system. (Students in OU’s Aviation program take a standalone CRM course.) CRM and LOFT let crews experience firsthand stressful, overload-likely scenarios and work to communicate effectively and take coordinated crew actions to achieve a successful outcome. The flight deck is videotaped and the instructor together with the two-person flight crew team (and sometimes an air traffic controller and flight attendants) review how the team might have been able to improve its effectiveness. CRM training has fundamentally changed the aviation culture and contributes to flight crews working together as a team at all times—in normal operations and, most importantly, during critical emergencies.

The movie also highlights the function of the National Transportation and Safety Board. In Sully, the NTSB reviewers initially come off as suspicious and hostile, but in reality the NTSB plays a critical role in our nation’s aviation and transportation safety and is frankly the envy of the world. It is very administrative and technical in nature but designed so that all stakeholders involved in an incident or accident have the ability to present facts during an investigation. Depending on the situation, an investigation sometimes requires several presentations and examinations of data and reviews of cockpit voice recordings and flight data recorders to arrive at a final board determination. It can be very stressful for anyone involved in a transportation accident to have one’s actions analyzed to this extent, but it is a necessary process to get to the underlying facts of any transportation occurrence.

I hope many people see Sully for themselves and then reflect on and appreciate the highly trained professionals who are part of our air transportation system and are dedicated to aviation safety 24/7, 365 days a year.