Clint Eastwood’s 2016 movie Sully tells the story of Captain “Sully” Sullenberger’s January 2009 emergency landing on the Hudson River of a US Airways flight that lost power in both engines after being struck by a flock of birds shortly after takeoff. All 155 passengers and crew survived with only minor injuries. The majority evacuated onto the plane’s wings where they were rescued from the bitter cold by quick-acting ferry boat captains and divers from New York City’s water rescue team.
Although the title is Sully and the movie focuses much of its attention on Sullenberger himself (played by Tom Hanks), it is more than just a fawning biopic. It contains several important lessons and themes.
One theme to which the movie constantly recurs concerns the relationship between humans and their technology. In a revealing scene early in the movie, Sullenberger and his co-pilot Jeff Skiles are questioned by the members of the National Transportation Safety Board. They are told that multiple computer simulations indicate that they could have made it back to the airport.
Skiles tells them, “Look, I just finished training on the A320, and I can tell you that the only reason the plane operated as well as it did, that the aircraft could land anywhere, is because Captain Sullenberger turned on the Auxiliary Power Unit.”
“He was simply following the QRH [technical handbook],” says a member of the Board.
“No. He wasn’t following the proper procedure at all,” says Skiles in what might seem like a damning comment against his captain. “I know,” he continues, “because I had the QRH in my hands. He switched on the APU immediately after engine rollback. According to Airbus, that’s the fifteenth thing on the list to do. Fifteenth. If he’d followed the damn rules, we’d all be dead.”
Another technical read-out contains data indicating that the left engine was still idling and could have powered them out of trouble. “Then the data would be wrong,” Sully tells them. “Show me the left engine and it’ll be dead geese and no power.” When the plane is finally recovered from the Hudson, the computer is shown to have been wrong. Following its guidance would have killed them.
When asked how he “calculated all the parameters” when he decided to ditch the plane, Sully replies, “There wasn’t time for calculating. I had to rely on my experience of managing the altitude and speed on thousands of flights, over four decades.” I “eyeballed it,” he tells the astounded Board members.
Machines do many things well. They compute faster than humans. But they are not capable of making life-and-death judgments. For this, you need a human and usually an exceptionally well-trained one. Machines can help humans, but it is foolish to think that they will ever replace human judgment.
Machines are, as they ever were, only as good as the humans who use them. This is something we should remember as we listen to the siren song of the automated automobile. Only a human can make the judgment to risk his life by crashing his car to save a child who has run out into the street.
My presumption is that there will be two kinds of automated car passengers. Those who want a car set to crash and sacrifice the passenger and those who want a car set to run over any obstacles rather than risk the safety of the passenger. Which algorithm would you choose? Our machines are no better than the humans who use them.
After listening to the cockpit voice recording of their emergency landing, which reveals just how miraculously calm and methodical the two pilots were, Sullenberger tells his co-pilot: “I’m just so damn proud of you. You were right there with me, through all those distractions. With so much at stake. We did this together. We were a team.” As Skiles’ eyes brim with tears, Sully says simply: “We did our job.”
When they return to the safety hearing, a formerly antagonistic member of the NTSB praises Sullenberger for being the one essential part of the equation that saved the flight. “Take you out of the equation,” she tells him, “and the math just fails.”
“It wasn’t just me,” Sully tells her. “It was all of us. Jeff, Donna, Sheila, Doreen. The passengers, the rescue workers. Air traffic control. The ferry boat crews and the scuba cops. We did it.” And it is at this point you, the viewer, realize this is the story Eastwood has been telling all along. He has expertly shown how all of the people involved came together and played an essential role. The ferry boats nosed expertly right up to the plane wing to take the passengers off; the scuba cops saved those in the water, and the flight attendants prepared the passengers. They all “did their jobs.”
When we think of heroes and holiness, we don’t often enough think of men and women simply doing their jobs and doing them with excellence. Daily and hourly, there are people whose lives and well-being depend upon us and upon us doing our jobs well, just as our lives depend upon them doing their jobs well. This is the basis of any community. It is what civilization is built on. Not on military power or powerful machines or scientific genius. Our machines can convince us this isn’t the case, but this is a dangerous illusion.
In an age of hyper-individualism, we had better learn the lessons of Sully. Our lives are interconnected. Machines are only as good as those who know how to use them and know when to ignore them. And there are heroes. They are the people who do their jobs with excellence — not for the money, not for promotion, not for fame and notoriety, but simply because, as poet-songwriter Bob Dylan has written, “you gotta’ serve somebody.” And it had better not be a machine.
Image: Captain Chesley Sullenberger in 2010 [photo by Andrew Theodorakis, N.Y, Daily News]