American Airlines Flight #1549 was no longer air-worthy, but that didn’t stop thousands of people coming out for its final departure.

The plane, made famous after Capt. Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger and his crew successfully made an emergency landing on the Hudson River in January 2009, has become a symbol of hope and heroism, especially for New Yorkers.

University of North Carolina School of the Arts professor John LeBlanc was hired to document the plane being shipped from New Jersey to the Carolinas Aviation Museum in Charlotte in 2011. But what LeBlanc and his UNCSA students found while shooting the documentary was how the plane and the “Miracle on the Hudson” affected far more than the 155 souls aboard that day.

“There were thousands and thousands of people who wanted to see the plane,” LeBlanc said. “It was just amazing. Kids would come up, touching the airplane, and being very excited about it. People would stand for hours on the overpasses just waiting, waving the American flag.”

LeBlanc said traffic would just stop on Interstate 40 as the truck carrying the plane drove by so that the drivers might catch a glimpse of it for a few moments. LeBlanc noticed the impact news of the plane’s delivery was having on the general public and told his students that there was a much bigger story to tell.

Indeed, seven years later, the story remains on the forefront of people’s minds, perhaps best demonstrated by the theatrical success of “Sully,” starring Oscar-winner Tom Hanks and directed by Oscar-winner Clint Eastwood, which was the No. 1 movie at the box office during its first two weeks of release.

“Everybody knows about the plane landing in the Hudson,” LeBlanc said. “What I wanted to know was how it affected the people who were on that plane and who had loved ones on that plane. The impact it had made and lives it affected. So we talked to the people who investigated it, we talked to passengers. There was a woman who was a passenger who walked back onto the plane for the first time, and she broke down in tears. We had several wives who watched it unfold on the news, and they said they had no emotional control.”

LeBlanc and his team interviewed Sully and co-pilot Jeff Skiles in the plane’s cockpit as they demonstrated what happened during the flight.

Because LeBlanc wasn’t able to go on the trip himself, his students got valuable on-the-job training in filming, said Devin Forbes, who was a UNCSA senior at the time of the project and now has his own production company in Winston-Salem.

“It was a trial-by-fire, for sure,” Forbes said. “Because John was not able to go, it was kind of chaotic – very much flying by the seat of our pants. He gave us a lot of independence to find cool shots. There were definitely some great moments, such as all the people turning out to welcome home Flight 1549.”

The filmmakers ended up talking to the rescue crews, the ferry boat crews, the passengers, their families, the air traffic controller – virtually everyone who played a part. He even talked to people who were able to identify the birds that struck the plane’s engines as Canadian geese.

LeBlanc and his students hope to raise another $250,000 to edit and finish the documentary. Once complete, he plans to enter the documentary into as many film festivals as possible, and seek a TV or cable network to air the documentary to a wider audience.

He said Warner Bros. acquired some of the footage his team shot to use for “Sully,” but it ultimately didn’t make the final cut of the movie.

Meanwhile, some of the team’s footage has been cut for a brief five-minute segment that plays on a loop at the museum. LeBlanc said many of the museum attendees watch the footage more than once.

“It sort of goes hand-in-hand with ‘Sully,’” LeBlanc said. “It’s quite amazing footage. It’s a part of our history now. It’s ‘The Miracle.’ How does a plane land on the Hudson River, and nobody dies?”

Written by Phillip Ramati


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