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Byko: Sully is not a hero

"Fly the airplane."

Those three words were the most memorable piece of advice given to Chesley Sullenberger when he was a kid in Texas learning to fly a bi-wing aircraft, the kind familiar from World War I.

His pilot instructor told him that in an emergency, when everything else was going haywire, the most important thing was to "fly the airplane."

That's revealed in a flashback in Sully, which opens Friday. The 1 ½-hour movie comes across like a well-made documentary, with a few dramatic touches to add suspense.

Tom Hanks stars as low-key Capt. Chesley Sullenberger, the US Airways pilot who landed an Airbus A320 in New York City's Hudson River on Jan. 15, 2009. Sully was directed by Clint Eastwood.

For me, either of those names makes a movie "must-see." Together, it's "can't-miss," because Hanks, the quintessential Everyman, is selective about his roles and the lean and mean Eastwood is serious about his art. Dramas need a "heavy," and in his quiet film Eastwood provides one in the form of a near-hostile National Transportation Safety Board looking into the cause of the accident. Dramatic tension is heightened when -- in a conversation with his wife, played by Laura Linney -- Sullenberger reveals if he is found at fault, his career would crash and burn, as would his sideline as a private aviation safety consultant.

In an early hearing, the NTSB reports computer simulations showed Sully could have turned back and landed safely at LaGuardia Airport after being struck by flight of Canada geese that knocked out his two engines. Only one engine was knocked out, the NTSB says in the film.

NTSB simulations also say he could have made it to Teterboro Airport in New Jersey. Sully insists he could not -- and he was in the cockpit.

When the NTSB then stages simulations using pilots, results again show Sully could have safely landed. In the movie, Sully makes the point the test pilots knew the bird strike was coming and immediately headed toward an airport without analyzing the situation as he had done. When 35 seconds of "think" time was added to the simulation, the pilots crash before reaching either airport.

In reality, according to my research, it was the NTSB itself, not Sully, that declared the simulations were unrealistic.

I didn't give you a spoiler alert because we all know the 150 passengers and 5 crew survived the six-minute flight, with only two requiring overnight hospitalization and Sully's reputation is, well, unsullied.

When he ditched the eggshell white aircraft on the gray surface of the river, it was like belly landing at 150 m.p.h. on granite. If the nose were a few degrees too low, or either wing tilted down, the aircraft would have cartwheeled. That didn't happen.

It's hard to forget the images of the passengers standing on the wings of the disabled plane. From a distance, they appeared to be standing on the surface of the water.

Apart from the facts we already knew, Sully gives us a picture of a man, a former USAF fighter pilot, who resisted the label of "hero" that was thrust upon him from the passengers whose lives he saved, to the incoming president of the United States, Barack Obama, who invited the flight crew to his inauguration.

Following his training, experience and instincts, Sully believes, was not "heroic." This was a desperate battle for his own life and 154 others.

Sully credited his decades of experience for the amazing feat, plus the teamwork of his crew and the rapid response of nearby craft in the Hudson. All 155 were rescued from the river in 24 minutes.

The film doesn't say so, but in an interview after the landing, Sully said when he realized he was going to ditch in the water he had to be near where boats operated, for the rescue. That was experience and intuition at work.

Hanks portrays Sully as quiet, dignified and maybe a bit solitary, as his affection for jogging suggests.

In the aftermath Sully -- and others aboard -- suffered from flashbacks, sleeplessness and panic attacks, but Sullenberger, 57, returned to the job he loved and flew for another year before he retired.

Throughout the acclaim that followed the "Miracle on the Hudson," he always, and generously, gave credit to his crew and the rescuers.

Still, one man made the life-and-death decisions and one man had his hands on the controls when the huge, powerless bird landed on the river surface, something hailed as unique in aviation history.

When the alarm horns sounded and deadly danger rose before him, he wasn't heroic, believes Sully, what he did was just "fly the airplane."