Science of 'Sully'


Matt Edison

Document Type

News Article

Publication Date


Campus Unit

John D. Odegard School of Aerospace Sciences


Assistant Professor at UND Aerospace discusses the story of an aircraft emergency landing on the Hudson River in 2009, now featured in a top box office motion picture

Nick Wilson, assistant professor of aviation at the University of North Dakota’s John D. Odegard School of Aerospace Sciences, has a unique connection to the emergency landing on the Hudson River of U.S. Airways Flight 1549 on Jan. 15, 2009.

The famous “landing” and courageous airline captain that made it happen are subjects of a major motion picture, “Sully,” currently No. 1 in the country, based on box-office returns.

As a systems and procedures instructor for the Airbus 320 (A320) — the aircraft flown by Airline Capt. Chesley Sullenberger — Wilson provided initial and continuing-qualification training for captains and first officers at a major airline for five years. Many of those aviators are still active crewmembers flying the A320 today.

Wilson remembers the incident well. He also recalls discussing assessments of the incident with his colleagues as they watched the story unfold on national television.

“Whenever an incident or accident occurs,” Wilson says, “it’s really important not to make initial assessments without more detail. That’s a common outcome with the media.”

Rare incident

Wilson says the National Transportation Safety Board and FAA took a long hard look at the checklists and procedures associated with the incident.

One of the aspects that made this incident so unique was the dual-engine failure, which, at such low altitudes, is extremely uncommon. Because of the rarity, checklists associated with a dual-engine failures were not optimized, specifically procedures associated with “ditching” the aircraft.

The importance of including low-altitude engine failures in checklists is apparent when one considers the lack of safe places to force land an aircraft in heavily congested cities like New York City.

Seeing 'Sully'

Though Wilson has not been able to see “Sully” yet, he is looking forward to the opportunity. He’s eager to see how much detail of the incident the filmmakers covered.

When speaking to people who aren’t pilots, Wilson offers advice on how to best enjoy the film:

“One thing I would say to the general public watching the movie would be – ‘Take in as much of this experience as you can, because it certainly is going to be exciting,’” Wilson said. “’but also, research the topic in more detail. What I can’t comment on is how accurate the movie is compared to the realities that the flight crew faced. I’m certain they made an attempt to realize that and that’s the difference between making a movie and actually facing an emergency.’”

Judgment call

Flight 1549, piloted by Sullenberger, departed LaGuardia Airport in New York City just before 3:30 p.m. After climbing to 3,000 feet, the aircraft struck a flock of Canada geese, which caused damage to its engines and resulted in a loss of thrust for both.

Sullenberger opted to land in the nearby Hudson River after judging that he could not return to LaGuardia or any other airport. Through quick decision-making, Sullenberger and crew were able to safely guide the aircraft on to the Hudson with no loss of life.

Wilson commends Sullenberger on his decision.

“The captain elected, and arguably very rightly so, to land in the Hudson where there would be the least potential loss of life, and it ultimately resulted in no loss of life, which is quite amazing,” Wilson said.

Interestingly, the A320 involved in the Hudson River landing was equipped to handle an over-water landing. At the time of the incident, this was not common with the entire U.S. Airways fleet nor the fleets of many other major air carriers. This equipment was not a requirement for the route of Flight 1549, however, having passenger life vests and escape rafts on board ended up being advantageous in the rescue effort.