This is based upon events portrayed in the movie Sully. If the film is taken at face value, what we basically see is a (fairly brazen) stitch-up attempt by the NTSB (National Transportation Safety Board), where they try to steer an investigation towards a predetermined conclusion of 'pilot error' (and very nearly succeed) using:

  • Naively unrealistic computer simulations that assume a pilot would divert towards the nearest landing strip immediately after a birdstrike without needing any time to evaluate the damage to their aircraft, attempt to diagnose and troubleshoot the problem, or coordinate with air-traffic-control.
  • Similarly unrealistic simulations using real pilots who have been trained/conditioned to divert immediately after the simulated birdstrike.
  • The deliberate omission of the fact that the pilots only succeeded in their simulation attempts after multiple failed training attempts, up until the pilot involved in the actual incident calls BS on the whole charade.

The only motivation posited in the film for the NTSB's attitude was that the insurance company would have preferred a conclusion of 'pilot error'. Thus, my questions are:

  1. Is the film's portrayal of the NTSB accurate, either in terms of having a general anti-pilot bias or in terms of the particular investigation depicted having had an anti-pilot bias?
  2. Why would the NTSB care about acting in the interest of insurance companies (particularly to the extent that they'd be willing to throw pilots under the bus to do so)?
  3. Does an insurance company avoid a payout in the case where an aircraft is lost due to pilot error (as opposed to mechanical failure, birdstrike, or other unavoidable scenario)?
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    $\begingroup$ I never trust Hollywood to deliver anything other than entertainment, especially when aviation is involved. Sully himself is on record saying that the film does not fairly portray the NTSB or the way they acted in this particular case. The real Sully insisted the names be changed for the film since the movie treats the NTSB investigators as the "villains" of the story, painting them to be more vindictive and out-to-get-'em than they were in real life. $\endgroup$
    – Simon
    Sep 18, 2016 at 17:45
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    $\begingroup$ If you'd rather watch than read for further insight, try this: youtube.com/watch?v=RuxCBYAaZ9M - a documentary on the incident. Of note here is that it contains comments by some of the actual investigators. Consider that it's their job to apply all due diligence to find the facts without bias. One investigator even commented on the pressure to not taint Sully as a hero; to do their job properly, they cannot allow themselves to be affected by any such outside influences . $\endgroup$
    – Anthony X
    Sep 18, 2016 at 19:56
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    $\begingroup$ And one other point: "Sully" is a dramatic movie. Drama needs heros (the crew) and villains. The writers chose to make the NTSB the villains of their story. It was the writers' choice, irrespective of any actual facts. $\endgroup$
    – Anthony X
    Sep 18, 2016 at 20:15
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    $\begingroup$ Clint Eastwood made a movie where the government is the villain? Who could have foreseen it? $\endgroup$ Sep 19, 2016 at 14:51
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    $\begingroup$ @user19474 But it was obviously Canada's fault! They let their geese just roam around into busy U.S. airspace. :) $\endgroup$
    – reirab
    Sep 19, 2016 at 19:22

3 Answers 3


I think it is quite unfair to paint the NTSB investigators as villains just for the dramatic effect when nothing of the sort happened in real life.

  • It is the job of the NTSB to investigate all possible reasons for the accident. It includes pilot error among other things. They were doing precisely that in the actual investigation. Among other things, the NTSB concluded that:

The captain’s decision to ditch on the Hudson River rather than attempting to land at an airport provided the highest probability that the accident would be survivable.

The pilots were fully briefed on the maneuver before they attempted to perform it in the simulator. The following three flight scenarios were flown:

(1) normal landings on runway 4 at LGA, starting from an altitude of 1,000 or 1,500 feet on approach;

(2) attempted landings at LGA or TEB after the bird strike, starting both from zero groundspeed on takeoff from runway 4 at LGA and from a preprogrammed point shortly before the bird strike and loss of engine thrust; and

(3) ditching on the Hudson River starting from 1,500 feet above the river at an airspeed of 200 kts.

Note that the NTSB clearly mentions that the pilots were briefed before the simulation. NTSB noted clearly in its report that immediate turning of the aircraft after the bird ingestion did not reflect what could've been done in real world:

The immediate turn made by the pilots during the simulations did not reflect or account for real-world considerations, such as the time delay required to recognize the bird strike and decide on a course of action.

The simulations (along with the case where there was a 35 second delay to account for pilot response) was done entirely by the NTSB with no input whatsoever from the flight crew. As The Guardian notes:

And then the investigators – not Sullenberger – asked a pilot to wait 35 seconds before attempting an airport return. That flight didn’t make it. Consequently, the NTSB was unequivocal in its declaration that the Hudson was the right call.

Actually, the movie was so inaccurate in the portrayal of the NTSB that the real people involved asked the names of the investigators in the movie to be changed:

... a draft script included the names of real-life NTSB officials, but Sullenberger - who is an adviser on the film - requested they be taken out.

He said, ‘These are people who are not prosecutors. They are doing a very important job, and if, for editorial purposes, we want to make it more of a prosecutorial process, it ain’t fair to them,”’ said Hanks.

There is no evidence to determine that the NTSB acted in the interest of insurance companies (or anyone else) in this investigation. The situations in which an insurance company is liable depends on the particular policy (as far as I know, liability is usually for negligence).

While the investigation may not be perfect, there was no kangaroo court anytime during the investigation. There was no attempt at public lynching, as The Guardian notes:

In fact, in his memoir, Sullenberger reflects that he was “buoyed by the fact that investigators determined that Jeff and I made appropriate choices at every step”

There was no cover-up by the NTSB and there was no Kangaroo court (you can easily look up the public hearings in this case) to pin everything on the flight crew on behalf of somebody else. Though not perfect, there is nothing to suggest that the investigation was not conducted professionally.

It is sad that the movie portrayed officials performing their duty as villains just because it was decided that the people would rather have the ancient good Vs evil show in the movie rather than the truth (while I'd have to agree that the movie would've looked more like documentary otherwise, that is no excuse).

The problem though, is that more people will be seeing the movie than reading the report or looking up the actual investigation that people will have a entirely uncalled for negative opinion of the NTSB, which may affect the future investigations. As Robert Benson who carried out investigation on the Flight 1549 noted in an article:

"I do not know why the writer and director chose to twist the role of the NTSB into such an inaccurate depiction. .... The movie may actually be detrimental to aviation safety. Pilots involved in accidents will now expect harsh, unfair treatment by investigators. They and others who see the movie will now believe that the NTSB enters into any investigation with preconceived notions, and that we are intent on destroying reputations. Simply untrue. The NTSB is the best friend an airline passenger never gets to meet."

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    $\begingroup$ When you consider that they took what's essentially a relatively short event (bird hits plane, plane forced to land) into a full on Hollywood blockbuster, you "need" a villain...and I suspect they didn't want to make Birds the enemy, so why not some big government agency? But I agree, they could have shown how professional they are at NTSB and that all govt agencies don't work against the folks they're tasked with watching out for. $\endgroup$
    – BruceWayne
    Sep 18, 2016 at 22:03
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    $\begingroup$ @BruceWayne Indeed, it's surprising that in this day and age and with the political leaning in Hollywood they didn't make the Insurance Agency the 'evil' and give the government a pass. $\endgroup$
    – Mark
    Sep 19, 2016 at 0:48
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    $\begingroup$ @BruceWayne: make Birds the enemy -- THAT's a movie I'd want to watch! $\endgroup$
    – slebetman
    Sep 19, 2016 at 2:56
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    $\begingroup$ @BruceWayne - Another option might have been to cast the media as the main villain. Especially given that as the other answer points out, it was CBS who put forward an article headlined "Sully Could Have Made it Back to LaGuardia". $\endgroup$
    – aroth
    Sep 19, 2016 at 4:21
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    $\begingroup$ @slebetman uhmmm...almost certainly one of the most famous films of all time $\endgroup$
    – Jamiec
    Sep 19, 2016 at 11:10

No, they are not. The NTSB simply investigates accidents to determine the root causes of the accident and to make recommendations as to how to improve aviation safety. It has no bias nor does it play favorites.

The NTSB investigation of US Airways flight 1549 was the most unrealistic element of the Sully movie. Director Clint Eastwood portrays The NTSB as trying to do a hatchet piece on Captain Sullenberger at the behest of both US Airways and the insurance underwriters for the A320 airplane which was lost. In reality the real NTSB report for Cactus 1549 reads nothing like that. Even the principle NTSB characters in Sully are fiction, the NTSB sunshine hearing is totally different and the simulator run-throughs happened months before the hearing ever took place. See below.

As I understand it, Eastwood needed an antagonist for the film tho make it more relatable to the audience. The NTSB seemed the only and logical choice for the role.

Most NTSB investigators scoff at the investigation portrayed in Sully; my favorite take was from an investigator who said that 'Sully' was about as close to a real NTSB investigation as 'Sharknado' was to real meteorology.

The basis for Eastwood's take on the NTSB investigation in Sully seems to be a CBS news story published over a year after the accident which talked about run throughs of the accident using A320 simulators which showed flight crews could have turned back to LGA or TEB if they immediately reacted to the bird strike and turned back. What Eastwood seems to missed in that story was that both the NTSB and Airbus concluded that the simulator scenario was not a reasonable facsimile of the actual events and stressors which the crew of Cactus 1549 faced that afternoon on Jan 15, 2009 and both parties stated that ditching in the Hudson was the only reasonable alternative in this situation.

If anything the recommendations from the NTSB's report on Cactus 1549 praised Capt Sullenberger and FO Stiles for how they handled the incident, praised US Airways for keeping life vests and rafts onboard its domestic flights despite no federal regulatory requirements to do so, scrutinized Airbus for having complicated engine out checklists which were not easy to follow by a crew at low level and scrutinized the FAA for not having regulations in place for the use of child safety seats for infants and young children on revenue flights.

The NTSB rarely reacts or makes scathing rebukes in its reports; one example of the NTSB characterizing a player in a negative light was the NTSB report of the Gulfstream G650 prototype crash in Roswell, NM, in 2011. Here the NTSB faulted Gulfstream - and rightfully so - for a recklessly run flight test program and its obstinance and refusal to cooperate with the investigation after the accident.

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    $\begingroup$ "'Sully' was about as close to a real NTSB investigation as 'Sharknado' was to real meteorology" - Thanks, that's a great quote. Pretty much says it all. $\endgroup$
    – aroth
    Sep 19, 2016 at 0:20
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    $\begingroup$ @aroth wait, Sharknado wasn't real? $\endgroup$
    – enderland
    Sep 19, 2016 at 17:44
  • $\begingroup$ @aroth Careful, hollywood might now make a Sharknado movie and everyone may think it's real or possible. $\endgroup$
    – DrZ214
    Sep 20, 2016 at 5:37
  • $\begingroup$ A large cylindrical object with wings has landed in the Hudson after strange geese were seen flying near Mars... $\endgroup$ Jan 9, 2019 at 22:00
  • $\begingroup$ Was that edit really worth bumping this question to the front page? $\endgroup$
    – Notts90
    Jan 10, 2019 at 19:48

The NTSB does so routinely find pilots at fault for virtually everything under the sun (with all other factors and actors only as "contributing") that when they don't, as in US1549, it's now a notable event.

However, I don't think it's fair to call that hostility. Regulators and vendors have (at enormous cost) engineered virtually all safety problems out of the system except for human error, so it's not surprising that human error remains by far the most significant problem--despite decades of trying (mostly in vain) to figure out how to better train us.

The downside of vesting pilots with final authority over their flights (especially in an emergency) is that necessarily comes with final responsibility for those same flights. That means the pilot is nearly always at fault in an accident, at least as far as the regulations are concerned. If anything, that leads to cynicism or even hostility from the pilots' side when dealing with the NTSB et al.

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    $\begingroup$ They don't, really. Not when professional pilots are involved. Sure, the majority of incidents are blamed on pilot error, but the majority of incidents are stupid mistakes by amateur pilots in light aircraft misjudging conditions and ending up in a situation way outside their training (flying into IMC, getting lost due to navigation errors, runway incursions for lack of situational awareness, running out of fuel because they forgot to check fuel levels before takeoff, etc. etc.). $\endgroup$
    – jwenting
    Jan 10, 2019 at 4:48

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