‘Sully’: The Air Traffic Controller’s Story

Clockwise from top left: Pilot Chesley (Sully) Sullenberger, co-pilot Jeff Skiles and controller Patrick Harten meet on Capitol Hill; Harten with actors Patch Darragh and Tom Hanks; and Flight 1549 on the Hudson River.

A few eventful minutes at work on Jan. 15, 2009, left an indelible mark in New York air traffic controller Patrick Harten’s mind. He constantly replayed those terrifying moments in his head in the weeks that followed, and although they ultimately ended with the inspiring tale known as “The Miracle on the Hudson,” Harten kept imagining the tragedy that might have been.

Now he is reliving those remarkable moments all over again — on the big screen via actor Patch Darragh, who plays Harten in the movie “Sully.” “I thought they did a great job capturing what it felt like to be there that day,” Harten said. “I’ve heard from some of the passengers, and they thought so, too. … Parts of it were tough to watch.”

The movie is based on the actual events surrounding the forced emergency landing of US Airways Flight 1549 on the Hudson River. It happened on a cold winter afternoon a few minutes after takeoff from LaGuardia Airport in New York. A flock of Canada geese flew into the Airbus A320, taking out both engines at a low altitude.

A simulation of Flight 1549 shows both engines on fire. (Image: YouTube)

Capt. Chesley (Sully) Sullenberger chose to land on the water after concluding that he didn’t have enough time to return to LaGuardia or to land at Teterboro Airport in New Jersey. Harten is the air traffic controller who talked to Sullenberger that day from the terminal radar approach control facility for several airports in the New York area. The Federal Aviation Administration’s TRACONs manage the airspace near airports, and New York TRACON is one of the busiest.

Harten, who first publicly shared his account of the incident in dramatic testimony to Congress, started his shift in the LaGuardia sector of the TRACON minutes before Flight 1549 took off. But soon after he issued a routine heading for the flight, Sullenberger reported the bird strike and double-engine loss. He headed back toward LaGuardia for an emergency landing.

Harten quickly arranged runway access there and communicated the details to Sullenberger. But 35 seconds after first reporting the emergency, the pilot uttered these ominous words: “We’re unable. We may end up in the Hudson.

Sullenberger predicted that fate more definitively about a minute later, after Harten suggested a runway at Teterboro instead. “We can’t do it. … We’re gonna be in the Hudson.”

“I’m sorry, say again,” Harten responded. He then lost radar contact with Flight 1549.

“I thought I was part of one of the worst aviation incidents in modern history at the time,” Harten recounted. He imagined the plane clipping a wing on the water, cartwheeling and breaking into pieces. Even if it landed smoothly, he figured most people on board would drown or succumb to hypothermia. “I was expecting there to maybe be a handful of survivors.”

New York TRACON controller Patrick Harten testified to Congress in 2009 about “The Miracle on the Hudson.”

Those thoughts raced through Harten’s mind as he sat alone in a conference room for the next 45 minutes, waiting to be debriefed about the emergency. “I couldn’t believe that I was actually involved in a plane crash [as a controller],” he said. “I always took pride that no matter what emergency I was involved in that I would be able to get everybody back to the airport safely. … That was devastating for me.”

Even after hearing that all 155 passengers and crew survived the water landing, Harten struggled to process the amazing news. He pictured grieving family members every time he saw survivors on television. And for weeks he second-guessed his own decisions in the incident.

Harten finally found reassurance when he met Sullenberger on Capitol Hill before their testimony. “I had to hear from Sully that he appreciated the job that I did,” Harten said. “He thanked me for it, and that was when I was OK with my performance.”

As its title suggests, the movie “Sully” revisits the crash from the pilot’s perspective, but Harten’s story is part of the plot. Darragh, whose acting career includes multiple roles in movies and on television, read the script coincidentally while on a flight into New York.

Patch Darragh plays controller Patrick Harten in the movie “Sully.” (Image: YouTube)

Soon after Darragh was chosen to play the controller, Harten contacted him via Facebook. He figured Darragh could benefit from seeing a controller at work, so Harten invited the actor to New York TRACON. “When somebody is going to play you in a movie, you want to see yourself represented fairly and accurately,” he said.

Darragh gained insight into his new role by shadowing Harten on Columbus Day last year, which ended up being a busy day in New York airspace. He watched Harten work traffic, studied his hand movements on the radar display and listened to the air traffic lingo. Then Harten explained everything as Darragh watched another controller. The two also reviewed the movie script together so Darragh could learn more about air traffic terminology.

The experience impressed Darragh, who didn’t fully understand the role of TRACONs in the national airspace system or how many airports feed their traffic through New York TRACON.

“I don’t think he stopped talking [to pilots] for about 45 minutes,” he said of Harten. “I watched all of these icons that were slowly moving in a swirl around the screen suddenly all link up into a line very neatly. And he just turned to me and said, ‘See, now I got my ducks in a row.’”

The tutorial proved valuable days later when Darragh headed to a makeshift set at Gwinnett Technical College in Lawrenceville, Ga., for filming. When Director Clint Eastwood heard that Darragh had shadowed Harten, he asked Darragh to help walk the crew through the shoot.

Darragh’s scenes — a longer sequence in the control room and a brief one in the conference room for the post-crash debriefing — were among the last to be filmed. The crew blocked off two days for taping but finished it in about seven hours on the first day. They shot the scene in the control room about 25 times in different set arrangements.

The role gave him greater respect for the work of air traffic controllers. “You realize the humanity of it and how there are some amazing people who we put our lives in their hands every day,” he said.

Harten’s role in the Flight 1549 emergency has been fictionalized before, including in a 2011 episode of “Air Emergency,” and he has been interviewed for documentaries like “Terror in the Skies.” But “Sully,” which so far has earned about $108 million, is the first project where Harten worked directly with an actor.

Patrick Harten with “Sully” director Clint Eastwood

The perks of that personal connection included an invitation to the movie’s New York premiere on Sept. 6, where Harten met Eastwood and actor Tom Hanks, who played Sullenberger. Harten also attended an advance screening two days later, before the official Sept. 9 release, and he rented a theater to watch it a third time with friends.

“It’s very surreal because I never thought in my life that I’d be involved in a production like this,” Harten said. As a bonus, he was surrounded by passengers from the flight. He stays in touch with several of them, including at annual reunions on the anniversary of the crash.

Harten did have one quibble with Darragh’s portrayal of him. At the end of the scene in the control room, the movie version of Harten breaks into tears after losing contact with Flight 1549 and being relieved of his position.

“They took some creative licensing there,” Harten said, joking that when he saw Darragh at the premiere, “I wanted to tell him, ‘There’s no crying in air traffic!’”

Harten found himself in another dire situation about four years after Flight 1549. Hurricane Sandy devastated his home in Long Beach Township. “My whole first floor was destroyed,” he said, adding that 90 percent of the homes in his community were affected. “We actually had to move out, and the reconstruction project took about 90 days.”

But that experience also revealed the close bond that has developed among everyone connected to one of the most memorable flights in aviation history. When Sullenberger heard about it, he encouraged his Twitter followers to support Harten and his community.

That bond also is evident in the occasional text messages that Harten gets from Flight 1549 passengers when they fly into LaGuardia. “They want me to watch their planes,” he said.

Darragh feels the same way after playing Harten in the movie. Every time he flies into New York, he thinks to himself, “Well, hopefully Patrick is on duty right now.”

A version of this story originally appeared on the FAA’s internal website. It has been reprinted with permission.