Almost Famous

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By now most everyone in the United States, and frankly all over the world, has either seen or heard about the story of Captain Chesley Sullenberger, and the crew of US Airways flight 1549. I was honored to have worked on both the accident investigation and on Sully, the Warner Brothers movie of the incident.

On January 15, 2009, I was on the job as an Airbus A320 Check Airman in the Charlotte Flight Training Center, when the call came in that US Airways Flight 1549 was down in the Hudson. Like everyone in the country, we watched the continuous coverage of incident, the actions of the captain and his courageous crew. The accident investigation began almost immediately.

Since the Airbus A320 transmits data continuously, using the radar tracks, we could piece together the exact path, altitudes, and speeds that flight had flown. I was tasked with loading these parameters into our flight simulators to try to determine whether there was any possibility the aircraft could have made a return to either La Guardia Airport in New York, or Teterboro Airport in New Jersey. Our team knew exactly at what point the birds had hit the plane so we flew the scenario dozens and dozens of times. Our data supported 100% that Captain Sullenberger and his crew had performed flawlessly in the unprecedented water landing.

In the ensuing weeks, I demonstrated the water landing to investigators, FAA administrators, and several other parties with an interest in the crash. The NTSB (National Transportation Safety Board) conducted an exhaustive investigation which, it should be noted, is their federal mandate. At the end of the NTSB hearings the findings were as we expected; Captain Sullenberger and crew had acted with courageous professionalism that had saved 155 lives.

Months later, my supervisor mentioned that he had forwarded my name along with several other pilots’ names to Warner Brothers Studios. The studio had asked for contact information for some of those who had worked on the investigation. I received an email from the producer saying that the studio was exploring making a movie of the 1549 story. At that point the movie was neither written nor named. The producer asked if I would send a picture of myself for Mr. Eastwood (no one calls him Clint) and his staff to evaluate. I was quite surprised when I received a call for a close-up and a head-shot for further evaluation. In the end, Warner Brothers and Mr. Eastwood chose 6 US Airways pilots to fly the simulator scenes for the movie. We filled out extensive applications as we all had to join the Screen Actors Guild. Thankfully the studio paid for the applications. We all signed contracts as “extras” and were paid on a daily basis. Lastly, we signed an ironclad non-disclosure agreement stating that we could not disclose any information about the movie, and that we could not post any of our pictures until movie had been released.

The airline assigned a media representative to the movie and we were kept apprised of progress through her. We received updates on the filming in New York of all the emergency responders. We were shocked to hear that Warner Brothers had purchased two recently retired Airbus A320 aircraft in US Airways paint livery. The plan was to sink them in the studio lake, the same lake where Jaws was filmed. When you watch the film you recognize how realistic the evacuation scene is because it really was sinking. All the details we learned indicated that this was to be a big-budget film, and when the cast of Tom Hanks, Aaron Eckhart and Laura Linney was announced we knew Sully would be a hit.

Toward the end of production, we pilots received calls, and FedEx delivered our scripts. I was “Pilot 1” and my colleagues were pilots 2 through 6. Our lines were simple; we were to fly the simulator and make our normal pilot callouts. We were given call times and told what to wear and where to report.

Early in the morning of our shoot, I arrived at the American Airlines Flight Training Center in Charlotte, N.C. to find about 15 semi-trailer trucks in the parking lot and a mass of technicians setting up for the day’s filming. I reported to the security guard, and was led to (Wait for it!) my dressing room. When the other five pilots arrived, we all agreed that we didn’t want or need dressing rooms. We were too interested in how this movie stuff was made. They herded us through wardrobe, makeup, and hair. It really was fun, and we all acted like kids. The make-up and hair ladies shared with us that they had just finished the Hunger Games series. Afterward, we attended a production meeting with the producer, director and Captain Sullenberger. During the meeting, we all had input and worked very hard at making sure that our parts were accurate. It should be noted that Sully (the man not the movie) looked at every scene to ensure it was precise. You will find that Sully, the movie is the most technically correct airplane movie ever made. Mr. Eastwood was constantly saying, “Are we doing this right?”

Our roles in the movie were to play NTSB inspectors and our job was to prove (or disprove) that Captain Sullenberger made the correct decision. Working with Mr. Eastwood for eight to nine hours was a privilege I will not soon forget. These are answers to the questions I’m asked: Yes, he is a very nice man, quiet and very polite; he’s in great shape; he’s 86 years old; his direction is very soft-spoken. He said, “Mike I need you to make a normal takeoff, strike the birds, make a left turn back to La Guardia, and please make it to the runway this time.” How cool is that? We shot all day and Mr. Eastwood did not take a break. His employees love him and swear no one in the industry knows how to make better movies. I’m convinced.

After our day of shooting, the production company took everyone to the N.C. Aviation Museum for dinner. If you haven’t visited Charlotte and the museum, you should. The actual 1549 aircraft is there, along with the entire story of survival for this crew and 150 passengers.

On September 6, 2016 my wife and I, and my colleagues flew to New York to attend the premiere of Sully. The entire cast, crew, and passengers were there, along with the heroic first responders, and of course, VIPs and media. It was quite the evening! Alas, what was to have been my movie debut ended on “the cutting room floor.” Naturally, I was disappointed my scenes were cut, but my friends did a great job. It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience. One we will never forget.

I promise you will not be disappointed, and if you haven’t seen it, I highly recommend you see Sully.

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