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UNC's David Sontag discusses surviving US Airways Flight 1549

On a wing and a prayer

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David Sontag was rescued from the left wing of the downed plane. - PHOTO BY GREG L./ CREATIVE COMMONS
  • Photo by Greg L./ Creative Commons
  • David Sontag was rescued from the left wing of the downed plane.

Last Thursday, David Sontag, professor of writing for screen and stage at UNC-Chapel Hill, was flying back from New York after attending a funeral for his brother, Dick, in Stamford, Conn.

In the sort of nightmare that haunts air travelers, Sontag was not supposed to be on US Airways Flight 1549. His scheduled nonstop to Raleigh-Durham International Airport was canceled, and he was rebooked through Charlotte. Instead, he ended up in the Hudson River and became an extra in a weekend-long media circus.

When I called him on Sunday, he picked up the phone on the first ring and greeted me by name. Sensing that I was startled, he explained that he knew who I was, "thanks to the miracle of caller ID."

I replied that I'd expected him to say, "thanks to the miracle of [Capt. Chesley] Sullenberger's flying skills." Sontag immediately demurred, praising the unsung work of Jeff Skiles, the co-pilot. "He had done the take-off, and then [after the loss of power] was trying to restart engines. After they were not restarted, he set the flap positions and everything else you do to ditch the plane."

Although Sontag was quick to stress that he was "not minimizing the extraordinary effort" of Sullenberger and the cabin crew, he was unenthused about the public's immediate embrace of the plane's captain: by the media (NBC's Matt Lauer landed the big interview for The Today Show), and by the public (at last count, 457,428 Facebook users have become "fans" of "Captain C.B. Sully Sullenberger").

"Our society tries to make heroes. He's a symbolic figure. Life is more complicated than that."

Sontag, 74 years old, is an expert in creation of dramatic heroes. He had a long career in television as a producer and writer with ABC, CBS Films, NBC and others, including credits for The Paper Chase and adaptations of work by Truman Capote and Maya Angelou. After his tenure in TV, Sontag arrived at UNC to direct the nascent undergraduate program in writing for stage and screen. He also served for nine years on the board of Doc Arts Inc., the fundraising arm of the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival before retiring from the position last year.

Despite his background, or because of it, Sontag's description of the experience downplays melodrama in favor of the remarkable composure of everyone involved. Besides, the entire incident lasted only a few minutes, and the emergency in the air was even shorter: "What do you do in a minute and a half?" Sontag says.

That's not to say there weren't moments of conflict.

"The engine was in flames when we hit [the birds]. A woman in the back stood up and shouted 'fire.' Then a stewardess said, 'We have this under control. Sit down.' She said it in such a way that she sat down."

Otherwise the atmosphere was quiet. Instructions came from cabin crew, and Sontag believes the only directive from the cockpit came when the passengers were informed of the imminent impact. "He said it in a very calm voice."

"We had 20-30 seconds to assume the crash position. Had [the pilot instructed us] much sooner, panic might have set in."

He says some passengers "said Lord's Prayers and 'forgive me my sins.' Each of us did what we do in that situation—not that we're in those situations often."

(But, as it turns out, Sontag had been in a couple of airplane mishaps before: an aborted takeoff in Aspen, Colo. and a landing with a collapsed front wheel in Burbank, Calif.)

After the impact, the emergency doors were opened and water entered the cabin. "Water came sloshing in, over the tops of the seats. I was drenched. The water level evened out when the plane's nose came level—then the water was at my calf level," said Sontag, who was sitting by the window in Row 23, a few rows behind the wing emergency exits.

"There was no screaming, no stampede. People just said, 'Move, move, move.'" The New York Times quoted Sontag as saying that one passenger stopped to retrieve his laptop from the overhead bin. I asked if he succeeded. "I think he did, but we all yelled 'Move!'" (Sontag also says he was misquoted elsewhere in the story, saying that contrary to the report, the captain didn't take a head count but told the passengers to count themselves off.)

Sontag is now one of the rare people who participates in a highly dramatic and public emergency, and then lives to pore over the coverage in the media and on the Internet. I spoke with him three days after the accident, and it's clear that when not fielding a deluge of phone calls and emails from his friends and family ("a very moving experience"), he's had time to bone up on the exact placement of emergency doors and equipment on the Airbus A320, the minute by minute chain of events from wheels-up to the rescue and to watch the rescue videos, particularly the Coast Guard surveillance footage that was released Saturday.

He told me about one incident in the minutes-long rescue that hasn't been widely reported. "Five minutes [into the Coast Guard video], you see a ferry coming to the left wing—that's where I was," Sontag says. "The ferry was having trouble holding position [and it was] swinging toward the fuselage—it was going to bang into a raft full of people by the front doors. It was going to squash it into the fuselage, but we were all yelling and signaling," before the ferry captain was able to correct his position.

Sontag says the airline has assured him that his luggage will be returned to him, "cleaned, dried out and washed." However, the only thing he wants back is a pair of gold cufflinks, given to him in Connecticut by his brother's wife of 58 years. "Lois gave me gold cufflinks she'd given to my brother—the first present she ever bought him. They're in the suitcase."

Our conversation turned to his area of expertise, dramatic writing and now, plane crash movies. Sontag said he didn't see how the crash of Flight 1549 would translate into a film, even a "ripped-from-the-headlines" instant TV movie.

"Although this was an extraordinary drama, there wasn't enough time to play out stories," he said. A film about the flight would not be about the interactions in the cabin. Instead, it would have to focus on the back stories of passengers—for example, he suggested, "What if one passenger was running from the law?" Citing the reports of a couple on the plane, engaged to be married, who shared a "tender kiss" just before impact, Sontag says a dramatist might be interested in their future: "Five years from now, are they still going to be married?

"The event is a catalyst, not the story itself," he said. In fact, one of the best-known films about plane crash survivors, Peter Weir's Fearless, was similarly interested in the lives of the survivors following the experience.

Sontag pointed out that another notable plane crash film, Paul Greengrass' United 93, benefits from a rich context. "That film had whole set of circumstances that were symbolic and greater than the event [of the crash itself]. We were under attack, the plane was heading to D.C., and the passengers rose up: They knew they were going to die but sacrificed their lives to save the Capitol. It's a heroic story that's greater than just one plane."

I reminded Sontag of his involvement with Full Frame, and of a popular film from last year's festival, Stranded: I've Come from a Plane that Crashed on the Mountains, the true story of the survivors of a plane crash in the Andes who subsisted on human flesh. I suggested that if he'd had this accident a year ago, the festival would have asked him to introduce the film.

"That would have been great," Sontag said. "Only I didn't have to eat anyone."

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