Reality at the movies: ‘Sully’ co-pilot makes appearance at theater

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(From left): Schubert's Luxury 10 General Manager Hillary Kreager chats with Jeff Skiles, the co-pilot responsible for the "Miracle on the Hudson" airbus landing in 2009, along with Brodhead Experimental Aircraft Association (EAA) member Robert Pokorney. Skiles is portrayed in the new movie “Sully” and met with fans at a special EAA showing of the movie on Saturday evening at the theater.

BELOIT — “There couldn’t have been better people to do what they did that day.”

That’s what “Sully” movie-goer Rick Ellis said about Capt. Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger and his co-pilot First Officer Jeff Skiles for their miraculous landing of US Airways Flight 1549 on the Hudson River in 2009. The Airbus A320-214’s engines had shut down after striking a flock of Canada geese shortly after takeoff from New York's LaGuardia Airport en route to Charlotte Douglas International Airport. Sullenberger and Skiles put the aircraft down on the Hudson without any casualties.

Aviation enthusiasts were able to meet Skiles during a special showing of the movie “Sully” at Schubert's Luxury 10 on Saturday evening. The Brodhead Experimental Aircraft Association (EAA) hosted the event which included a question and answer session with Skiles.

The theater was packed with fans curious to hear the real story behind the “Miracle on the Hudson.”

In the movie produced by Clint Eastwood, Tom Hanks plays Sullenberger and Aaron Eckhart portrayed the good-humored Skiles who joked the only thing he would have done differently was to land the aircraft in July.

Skiles, still a pilot, lives in Oregon, Wis., and is a member of the Brodhead EAA.

Although Skiles had been flying since he was 17 he had only been trained on the airbus for a week before the miracle landing. It was his first flight with Sullenberger when he heard the birds and the engines starting losing power.

Skiles noted that birds hitting planes, or “bird strikes,” are relatively common. Occasionally, one engine can stop running because of it. However, on Jan. 15, 2009, both engines went down. Because the plane was over the Harlem area, Skiles said the only option was to land in the Hudson. Skiles and Sullenberger remained calm as they took the major risk of a water landing. Other than lots of water spray, Skiles recalled the landing as being relatively precise and smooth.

Because the emergency landing only lasted 208 seconds, some of the passengers and crew didn't realize what was going on.

"A flight attendant knew the plane had crashed, but she didn't realize we were on the Hudson until the door opened and she saw water," Skiles said.

Skiles explained how the landing was only the start of getting the passengers ushered to safety. He and Sully had to evacuate all 155 passengers and crew, get the slide rafts inflated and get everyone in life preservers. Within five minutes, he said a ferry came to their rescue.

Skiles jokes eight of the passengers actually hailed cabs and returned to the airport for another flight immediately following the ordeal.

Although the public is most familiar with Skiles and Sullenberger being celebrated as heroes, the movie portrays the nerve-wracking year-and-a-half investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) they endured. Both men feared their careers would be over as lifetimes of experience were judged by seconds of performance and snap decisions. Sullenberger had deviated from recommended alternative landings at Teterboro Airport or trying to return to LaGuardia. With the plane rapidly losing altitude, Sullenberger opted for the Hudson landing.

Skiles recalled many sleepless nights during the investigation and losing 20 pounds over the ordeal.

After the incident, Skiles said Sullenberger only went on to have three flights before retiring and becoming a safety consultant. However, Skiles returned to work within two months and continues to be a pilot.

Since the “Miracle on the Hudson” passengers — mostly from the Charlotte, N.C. area — have held reunions and formed a social network. One of the biggest blessings of the incident was a friendship Skiles struck up with a passenger who later became a pilot. Today, Skiles flies with the former passenger.

He also remains in contact with Sullenberger. He said Hanks portrays a more worried and anxious version of Sullenberger, which wasn’t truly representative of his character.

“It didn’t capture his leadership or professionalism. He was an exceptional pilot and man,” he said.

Skiles told movie-goers the film was relatively accurate. Because it was based on Sullenberger’s recollections, Skiles didn’t receive any money from it. Skiles said actors portrayed each actual passenger. However, the actors were not allowed to make contact with any passengers as it would have opened up the production company to lawsuits as the passengers were not paid for their life story.

Skiles said Saturday was the second time he saw the movie and he still doesn’t understand the media frenzy surrounding the event or why someone made a movie out of it.

An attendee said Skiles was being modest, adding the belief that Skiles and Sullenberger will remain heroes.

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