On January 15, fate singled out Captain Chesley ‘Sully’ Sullenberger, pilot of US Airways flight 1549, by placing him in the cockpit of a routine flight that would wind up crash landing in the Hudson River. Miraculously, all 155 people on board survived, and Sullenberger’s skill and cool, calm resolve made him a true hero.
On that same day, fate singled out Pasadena-based producer Daniel H. Birman to be the TV producer that would tell Sully’s story in a documentary, in his own words. As recounted by TLC president and GM Eileen O’Neill to the New York Times, Birman had worked with Sullenberger’s wife, Lorrie, before, and was on the phone with her around the time that she started receiving calls from her husband on that fateful day.
Shortly thereafter, Brace for Impact, airing this Sunday on TLC, was born. Ten months in the making, Impact has Sully front and center, with moving testimony from other individuals whose lives were irrevocably changed on that day, including passengers, air traffic controllers, and NY Waterway rescuers.
‘From Sully and Jeff Skiles [the co-pilot of the flight], to some of the passengers, the air traffic controllers, and the boat captains who bailed them out of the Hudson, those are the big ticket items for the show,’ says Birman. ‘We relive those five minutes from those different points of view and we interweave the storytelling.’
Birman says that while the airline industry and surrounding federal agencies are not renowned for being particularly media-friendly, given the high level of security needed post-9/11, he was quite pleased with the access he gained from various parties, including the FAA and Tracon (New York’s Terminal Radar Approach Control), to tell the story. ‘I don’t think people tell many positive stories about airlines or airports – if they’re doing their work then no one pays attention,’ says Birman.
While the story behind the death-defying landing and the circumstances surrounding it is well known – the documentary Miracle On the Hudson aired in various territories relatively shortly after the event – Birman says Impact fittingly focuses on the impact that a series of decisions would make on many, many lives. Those decisions are outlined in one of the show’s more compelling sequences: for the first time, Sullenberger retraced the route of the flight in a helicopter outfitted with a GPS that contained its flight data.
‘In less time than it took Sully to land on the Hudson, you can tell the whole story,’ says Birman. ‘But what you can’t get is the insight – what does it feel like to be in the hot seat?’
Birman also notes the appearance of the ‘Chicopee Six’ – six friends from Chicopee, MA who were on the board the flight en route to an annual golf vacation – as another important part of the show. While filming the six men at a Fourth of July celebration, Birman and crew had the passengers each draw their family trees to provide an illustration of how many lives could have been drastically altered on January 15, 2009.
The show, narrated by Harrison Ford, was celebrated this week with a red carpet premiere in New York, with Captain Sullenberger in attendance. While fate may have arranged for the word ‘hero’ to forever be attached to the humble pilot, Birman says Impact reveals a simple truth about an extraordinary event.
‘Sully’s a professional, he was doing his job,’ says Birman. ‘He doesn’t like the word ‘hero.’ For him, it was another day in the cockpit, doing his job. For me as an observer, it was a fantastic opportunity to tell the story about someone answering the call.’