LOS ANGELES, CA – SEPTEMBER 08: Film subject Chesley Sullenberger attends a screening of Warner Bros. Pictures’ “Sully” at Directors Guild Of America on September 8, 2016 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images)
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Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger: The Gift That Changed Our Lives

Chesley Burnett Sullenberger, III (born January 23, 1951) is an international speaker on airline safety and a commercial airline captain for 30 years. But “Sully” will be forever remembered as a national hero after he successfully executed an emergency water landing in the Hudson River on January 15, 2009. All of the 155 passengers and crew onboard his aircraft survived. At the time the story was called “the miracle on the Hudson”. In adapting it to his latest film Clint Eastwood chose to title it with his name: Sully.

How different was living the miracle from seeing it on the big screen?

I had the advantage of knowing the script of the story before they were going to film it. So seeing it on the screen was not a surprise. It’s a very true telling of the story. But imagine seeing it with my family. It was very, very emotional.


Was there any uncomfortable surprise in the movie version of your story?

Only pleasant surprises like how hard everyone tried to get it right. You feel that is a true story. A year ago I expended entire days going to meetings with every craft department, from sound to hair and make up. I was asked everything from what kind of pen did I have in my pocket, if I loose my tie or leave it up while in the cockpit, if I wear my jacket while flying, how did it sound when the geese hit the engine. They worked very hard.


I imagine that having Clint Eastwood as the director was probably the best surprise of all.

Clint liked the script immediately. It was about ten days later that Clint came to our house for the first time and had a 3 hours lunch with us. He just wanted to see us in our natural environment before he made any casting decisions. Nice guy. Quiet guy. But very focused and had a very clear idea of how he wanted to tell the story.

Clint chose Tom Hanks to be you. But do you see anything from Captain Sully in Hanks?

 Hanks also came to my house and we spent the better part of a day talking about the script. But as far as his portrayal of me, that was something that he worked his magic. And I think he did a great job. The mastery of his craft is that you know a lot without much dialogue, he really conveys an enormous amount of information and emotion. The word he used was ‘foreboding’. He likened it to the classic western, High Noon, Gary Cooper. You can just feel the dread. You can see it on his face.


Now that the tables are turned, do you ever feel like a Hollywood star with so much fame?

The intensity of being a public figure on a global stage, the public notoriety that came with this incident is amazing. We all changed. I remember I called my wife the night of the landing from a hotel in NY and I said to her ‘I think our lives have changed forever’. We had to quickly get use to this new life, to be public figures on this world, to become a better public speaker, to be more at ease with the cameras. At least I’m glad I got this fame for something good. I can only imagine how will it be for all these people that deal with the same amount of attention for something bad. It must be unbearable.


Flying has become quite common in Hollywood. Many stars have become pilots and love to command their own planes. Is it a dangerous trend?

I think anyone who fly, because of the inherited risk involved, really should approach it with a professional attitude, having a full and accurate appreciation of their risks and then acting and behaving accordingly. Flying it’s not a fashion.


Talking about emergency landings, did you follow the second best known, the miraculous one that Harrison Ford executed a year ago o a golf course in Santa Monica?

I’ve met Harrison Ford. In fact he has become a friend. He’s partially responsible for the movie being made because we met several times since 2009. He is an aviation enthusiast and read the book and gave it to producer Frank Marshall who gave it to Allyn Stewart who optioned the rights and became a movie.


Was Ford ever interested on being Captain Sully?

We don’t talk about those things when we’re together. We talk about airplanes or families. I know that some people had considered him for the role. But that was in 2009. In 2015, when the movie happened, I think Tom was the top of most people’s lists. I just saw Harrison at that same big air show where I met him, up in Wisconsin in July this year. And we talked about the film. He hasn’t seen it yet. But at one point in the conversation, he said, ‘well you have given the viewer a great gift.’


See Captain Sullenberger talk about the 'Miracle on the Hudson' and seeing himself on the big screen. 

Read Clint Eastwood's and Tom Hanks' take on Sully.