US Airways Flight 1549 (Steven Day)
Venable corporate partner James Hanks Jr. in Baltimore was a passenger on US Airways Flight 1549, which crash-landed in New York’s Hudson River almost seven years ago.
The incident, quickly dubbed the “Miracle on the Hudson,” is the subject of a new movie out Friday called “Sully,” starring Tom Hanks as pilot Chesley Sullenberger III. Hanks is unrelated to Venable’s Hanks, although the two have some things in common, besides sharing roles in one of the more bizarre aviation accidents in history.
While Jim Hanks has never met the more famous Tom Hanks—a friend from Baltimore once helped him snag the actor’s autograph as a gift for his brother—he has met Sullenberger, who became an American hero for saving the lives of 155 passengers and crew aboard Flight 1549 after multiple bird strikes caused both of the plane’s engines to fail.
Hanks, who spoke with The Am Law Daily in 2009 about his experience aboard the doomed aircraft, has appeared with Sullenberger on television shows hosted by Larry King and Oprah Winfrey. But he has not yet seen the movie. Hanks was invited to early screenings in Manhattan and Charlotte, North Carolina, where Flight 1549 was headed after its aborted takeoff from New York’s LaGuardia Airport, but couldn’t attend.
Hanks said he and his wife hope to see the film soon, although he admits to having some reservations about how it will portray what he experienced firsthand.
“Sully was in command and performed an extraordinary feat of airmanship in saving all of us,” said Hanks, addressing some concerns he has about how Sullenberger could come off on the big screen. “Jeff Skiles, the first officer [on Flight 1549], has also not got as much attention as he deserves.” (Skiles, who served as Sullenberger’s co-pilot, is played by actor Aaron Eckhart in the film, which has received positive reviews and generated some off-screen drama.)
Hanks said he remembers the eerie silence after both engines failed; the water rushing into the plane and reaching his neck; and the cold he finally felt when his hand froze to a railing on a New York Waterways ferry that picked up passengers from the icy river that January day.
Only 24 hours after Flight 1549 fell from the sky, Hanks was back on another US Airways flight to Charlotte for a client meeting. He said he wasn’t worried about flying again so soon but did think that the Canada geese that took down his plane a day earlier might still be buzzing about, perhaps looking for revenge over the family members taken from them a day earlier.
Asked about how US Airways treated him after the crash, Hanks praised the airline, which has since been acquired by American Airlines.
“I think it would be a great business school case study in crisis management,” said Hanks (pictured right), noting that US Airways provided free food, drink and lodging to passengers in the immediate aftermath of the incident. “They had a plan and they executed it extremely well.”
Within a week, US Airways wrote Hanks a $5,000 check for his luggage—he lost a briefcase, work papers and a new overcoat—and another $610 check to reimburse the cost of his airfare.
Hanks did not need to sign any releases for the first two checks, but he did when he subsequently accepted a third check in the amount of $10,000 from US Airways’ insurer. Hanks didn’t keep the money, instead donating it to Bucerius Law School in Hamburg, Germany, where he has taught for many years. (Hanks’ wife is Austrian.) The donation was in honor of two Bucerius law students who perished on Air France Flight 447, which crashed into the Atlantic Ocean in June 2009.
“It makes me sick just thinking about it,” said Hanks, when speaking about his former students, Alex Crolow of Germany and Julia Schmidt of Brazil, who were a young couple. Their death, and the life that Hanks and others aboard Flight 1549 still enjoy, is what stays with him today.
Hanks said there were several people on his flight who met that fateful day and were later married and had children. Others were able to walk out of the half-sunken plane—now on display at the Carolinas Aviation Museum in Charlotte—and hold semiregular reunions with fellow passengers.
“We send Sully and his family a Christmas card every year,” Hanks said. “And we always get one back.”