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Nellis AFB lands cameo in ‘Sully’ for role preparing Sullenberger for ‘Miracle on the Hudson’

A flashback to Capt. Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger’s days flying in air combat exercises provides the blue yonder over Nellis Air Force Base with a cameo role in the film “Sully,” which opens Thursday.

The film reprises the so-called “Miracle on the Hudson,” when Sullenberger piloted a crippled US Airways jetliner to a safe water landing on New York’s Hudson River in 2009. But it also recalls the training that set the stage for the former Air Force pilot’s flying feat: The weeks during the 1970s when he flew Vietnam War-era F-4 Phantoms over what was then called Nellis Air Force Range, where fighter pilots prepare for the unthinkable.

In a preview screening of the movie directed by Clint Eastwood, actor Tom Hanks — who stars as Sully — flashes back to an emergency during one of his flights at Nellis. After he contacts the tower about a partial loss of control, a fellow pilot radios that he ought to “punch out” — eject from the aircraft.

Sully shrugs off the suggestion with confidence that he’s got everything under control. A short landing strip comes into view and the shaking jet descends safely with a parachute deployed to slow it down.

That experience proved to be priceless on Jan. 15, 2009, when the US Airways jetliner Sullenberger was piloting flew into a flock of birds, crippling the engines and forcing him to land on the Hudson.

His skills in landing the plane shortly after takeoff from LaGuardia Airport and evacuating all of his crew and 150 passengers to safety drew praise from then-Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Norton A. Schwartz for “remarkable airmanship, but also the commitment of being the captain of the ship.”

Rod Carlone, 66, a former Navy and airline pilot from Las Vegas, remembers riding with Sullenberger on a bus that shuttles employees from a parking lot to the terminal at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport.

“He and I were spiritually connected,” Carlone said Wednesday, recalling how they were among the older pilots contemplating retirement as the industry faced mergers and bankruptcies.

About 10 years later when Sullenberger made the national spotlight as the water landing hero, Carlone was in awe of the quiet, humble pilot he had met on the shuttle bus.

“That was the best pressure decision I’ve ever seen made, or heard of,” said Carlone who as a Navy P-3 Orion and S-3 Viking anti-submarine pilot flew patrols over wide ocean expanses and constantly trained for water landings.

“He had a lot of things going for him,” Carlone said about the Hudson River conditions that day. “He had a flat, long, softer-than-dirt-and-rock surface. I’d be ready for that in a heartbeat.”

Sullenberger, 65, graduated from the U.S. Air Force Academy in 1973 and flew fighter jets until 1980. He was a Blue Force mission commander when he came to Las Vegas for a few weeks at a time in the 1970s to participate in Red Flag exercises. In that role he was tasked with orchestrating the plan that leads the friendly Blue forces against the would-be enemy Red forces in simulated dogfights and attacks.

Contact Keith Rogers at krogers@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0308. Find him on Twitter: @KeithRogers2

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