This article was written by authors Kartikeya Tripathi, Teaching Fellow, Security and Crime Science, at UCL, and Hervé Borrion, Associate Professor in Security and Crime Science, UCL, and was first published on The Conversation. Read the original article here. The opinion of the authors does not necessarily correspond with that of the editorial team. Want your opinion to be featured on AeroTime? Send us a line at

The denouement of the recent Hollywood blockbuster Sully [2016] is a courtroom drama with a difference. On trial is the eponymous Captain Chesley Sullenberger (Sully), based on the real pilot who saved the lives of 155 passengers and crew by successfully landing his plane on the river Hudson in January 2009 after a bird hit stalled both engines.

Sully (played by Tom Hanks) faces an air crash investigation committee. But why was a man widely recognised as an all-American hero, whose quick thinking prevented a major airline disaster, facing punishment for his actions?

Every major aviation incident is followed by a full investigation, with the aim of fixing responsibility and making recommendations for prevention in the future. Research shows that in more than 80% of cases, human error by pilots is found to have played at least some part in the mishap.

This narrative of finding blame in the actions of individual pilots is portrayed quite well in Sully. But it has also been challenged in recent times by those thinkers who argue we should look at the word as a series of complex systems.

In the film, the investigators argue that Sully had risked lives by not turning the aeroplane around and making a potentially safer and far more comfortable landing at La Guardia airport. But Captain Sully destroys their arguments by asking the crash investigators to place themselves in the reality of the situation.

He successfully demonstrates that, given the stress under which he operated and the reaction time of the human brain in an emergency, there was no possibility that he could have glided the plane back to the airport. The computer simulations of the incident had failed to take these factors into account and so they, and not the human pilot, were wrong.

Captain Chesley Sullenberger played by Tom Hanks in Sully (2016). (Image source: BagoGames)

There has been controversy over the veracity of the story depicted by the film. Nevertheless, the director did a good job of popularising key concepts in air crash investigations that have now been recognised widely by complex systems theorists as basic flaws in the process. Research by academics like Sydney Dekker, Eric Hollnagel and James Rasmussen has pointed to the inability of investigators to fully appreciate the conditions in which airline pilots take critical decisions during emergencies.