An unexpected reaction to “Sully”
(As of 10.6.16)
Last evening my wife Mim and I along with some friends went to see the movie Sully, a 2009 story about the airline Captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger. This man safely landed his passenger jet in the Hudson River after geese got sucked through both engines shortly after takeoff from New York’s LaGuardia airport. His quick and decisive action saved all 155 on board. The story broke worldwide and Sully became a familiar name to us and countless others.
The movie received good reviews and I like the actor Tom Hanks who played the captain, so I expected a fine couple of hours of escape before a meal out with friends. What I didn’t anticipate was that I would be revisiting an experience of mine that eerily paralleled Sully’s.
It was December of 1976. My wife, young daughter, and I were living in England where I was leading a London Seminar for Beloit College students. Back in Rockford, Illinois, my father had unexpectedly died, and I traveled there for the funeral. On the return flight scheduled from Chicago O’Hare to London Heathrow strange things happened during the takeoff of our Boeing 747 jet. As we reached the ground speed where a plane of that size usually becomes airborne, I heard loud bangs and thuds and clanks that had my full attention. The plane took off moments afterwards, but soon I knew that our flight path had changed. Instead of going north over Lake Michigan while gaining altitude and following the usual great circle route that heads over large stretches of eastern Canada and the north Atlantic, our plane stayed very low and went around the south shore of the big lake. Something was wrong. The buzz of passenger talk was broken by the voice of the captain.
He told us that blown tires on take off had resulted in a damaged landing gear which sent – he called it – shrapnel through the fuselage of the plane. Our jumbo jet had a hole in it. We were losing air pressure that would only get worse. An emergency landing was planned for New York’s JFK airport about an hour away, but first we had to drop most of our fuel over the Atlantic to diminish the effects of an explosion that could ignite when we touched the ground.
Unlike the passengers and crew on Captain Sully’s plane, we had time to think about our fate plus work to do. We were instructed to take off our shoes and put them under the seats, remove everything from our pockets, and practice bending over so that our heads were in our laps. We were told that if we landed on land, if we landed on land – good grief, this means that we might land on water . . . in December . . . if we landed on land, we should slide down the chutes that will be automatically deployed, and then run away from the plane as fast as we can.
These tidbits hardly calmed the passengers or crewmembers. A full 747 flight has many attendants. As we neared the Atlantic I counted eleven of them lined up near a bulkhead, several with tears flowing down their faces. Not confidence builders for us infrequent fliers. For a while I reflected on the fact that I was leaving my father’s funeral service and might be – probably am – nearing my own.
We did a low first pass over JFK so that the underside damage of the plane could be examined by people on the ground and radioed to our crew. Out the windows we could see dozens of ambulances, lights flashing, lined up on both sides of a runway. Then we regained altitude and headed over the water. From my window seat I could see the fuel being jettisoned from openings at the end of the wing, like a fire hose at full blast.
The captain had the delicate task of landing the enormous plane with only part of his gear in use, so he was dealing with unknowns. After what seemed like an interminable approach time, we braced for the touch down. Like in the movie our attendants cried out: Brace, brace, brace . . . heads down, stay down. And again and again: Brace, brace, brace . . . heads down, stay down. And then they went quiet as we neared the ground. I remember only a single baby letting out a cry. The flashing lights of the emergency vehicles enveloped us.
The immediate touch down was smooth, and somebody yelled, “We made it!”
“Not yet,” replied another and we stayed silent.
Finally we rolled to a stop. We had been brought in safely. Soon we cried out our yippees, amens, and howls of ecstasy. We grinned from ear to ear and hugged strangers. The place – the plane – unlike the Sully one was high and dry, but still damaged enough so it could not be used for the remainder of the flight to England. After nine hours on the ground, we boarded another 747, and took our same seats. Soon the same captain – our Sully? – came walking down the aisles. More than once he said, “I’m going to be retiring at the end of the year, and this flight is only the second time I’ve been in an airplane with a hole in it. The first was when I was a beginning fly boy and stuck my leg through the fuselage of a canvas plane.”
When we landed at Heathrow everyone applauded and cheered for a long time.