Are We Really That Boring?

Like many pilots I’m still a sucker for aviation themed movies. Hollywood has never failed to disappoint me with a flying movie, but still, for some silly reason, I hope for better. When Flight with Denzel Washington was released last weekend there was a lot of hype, at least some good reviews and a big budget. Maybe, finally, a movie could get the flying parts right.

The reviews, and Denzel himself talking about Flight, made it clear that the airline captain star of the movie is a flawed character. Great pilot, but a human disaster. Still not a total turnoff because most of us know pilots who are good sticks but not exactly the types you want to loan large sums of money.

Turns out the reviewers underplayed the human flaws in Denzel’s pilot character. The movie opens with our hero in bed with a beautiful flight attendant. Maybe not accurate, but still centered on pilot fantasy.

Whip—why do movie pilots always have testosterone laced names—and the gorgeous girl had spent the night boozing, among other activities. But Whip has a sure fire cure for what is not yet even a hangover—cocaine. With several long snorts Whip is ready to depart Orlando in a raging thunderstorm.

Realism goes out the window almost instantly when Whip conducts the walk-around in the downpour while his copilot is snug and dry in the cockpit. Whip hits the oxygen mask in a further recovery attempt, orders a pushback before his belts are even fastened, and banters with the flight attendants all the way to the runway.

Whip also has a unique thunderstorm penetration technique which is to accelerate to red line airspeed. Whip tells his incredulous copilot that the extra speed gets you through the storm quicker. The fact that the wings may not come along for the ride doesn’t seem to bother Whip at all.

The flying visuals are a complete hash. The exterior shots of the airplane in flight appear to be of a C-RJ, one of the stretched versions. But the cockpit is DC-9/MD-80. The controls that we can see are nearly all from Douglas, but shots of the flat glass instruments and other close-ups could have come from several different airplanes.

Whip and his terrified copilot and screaming passengers punch through the turbulence and lightning and are soon cruising on top. Without warning—as usual in the movies—there is a loud bang of some sort and the jet noses over into an uncontrollable dive from 30,000 feet. Whip, who was sleeping with folded up charts stuck behind his sunglasses to block the light, springs into action.

He orders any drag device including flaps and landing gear to be extended. In a rare touch of realism, a main landing gear door blows away as the airplane is diving way beyond the gear extension speed limit. He also tries pulling the T-handles that separate the control systems to possibly free a control jam. That doesn’t work.

With the ground rushing up Whip—a Navy trained fighter pilot—realizes that if he rolls inverted the nose-down control force will become nose up and he can halt the dive. The inverted flight stops the descent, but passengers are on the ceiling and the engines, without inverted fuel and oil systems, are soon on fire. The freaking out copilot pulls the fire handles, which on any airplane I know of, shuts off fuel, hydraulics and bleed air to the engine. But not here. They keep jockeying the power with the fire handles pulled and something seems to be happening.

At the last moment Whip rolls upright and puts the airplane into an open field. All but six survive, but Whip’s squeeze from the night before was one of those killed. The wreckage we see is an MD-80 which has grown winglets.

For the next two hours Whip sinks lower and lower, if that’s possible, in his boozing and drug use. He alienates his pilot friends and anyone trying to help him. Denzel sweats, and swears, and throws things and it all goes on way, way too long.

The climax is an NTSB hearing. The blood test that showed the alcohol and drugs in Whip’s body after the crash was squashed because it wasn’t handled properly so he is about—after one last drunken rage just before the hearing—to get off the hook.

During the NTSB hearing it becomes clear that the script writers have drawn on the Alaska Air crash of many years ago to explain the control failure. In the Alaska Air accident the jack screw that raises and lowers the leading edge of the horizontal stabilizer to trim the airplane had failed. The out-of-trim condition overpowered the available elevator authority and the crew could not recover.

But in Flight, the movie, the NTSB lady explains that the jack screw operated the elevator and shows photos of the damaged mechanism. I don’t know of any airplane that uses jackscrews to operate primary flight controls so after suffering through two hours of drivel even the final aviation aspect is wildly inaccurate.

I won’t tell you how the movie ends in the few minutes following the jackscrew revelation, but you won’t be surprised, but almost certainly disappointed.

So, my question is, are pilots and flying that boring? Can Hollywood only make movies portraying a distorted view of how airplanes work, and an even more wildly distorted image of people who fly?

To answer my own question, yes. If I ever feel like my flying qualifies for a Hollywood script, I’m hanging it up.

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39 Responses to Are We Really That Boring?

  1. JJ Welch says:

    I was probably not going to see this movie just from the previews. Now with your blog and the one Paul Bertorelli did at Avweb I really will be avoiding this one for 2 big reasons
    1) The aviation stuff is handled terribly
    2) Substance abuse hits a little too close to home

    On a lighter note: I always enjoy reading your blogs and articles.

  2. Kayak Jack says:

    I believe it was Chief Sitting Bull who observed that, “No one has ever accused the United states government of telling the truth.” And, Hollywood stands at least one step ahead in that line. “Never let facts get in the way of a good story.” (even if it may not be a good story)

    In general, I like Denzel Washington. Just for the record, I didn’t believe all the stuff that John Wayne did either. But, I still liked him.

  3. Lee Dalton says:

    The only aviation movie I can recall having anything near a realistic plot line and story is “Island in the Sky” with John Wayne from about 1953.

    Based on a great book by Ernest K. Gann, with Gann as the technical advisor, this one really is a worthwhile movie. I fully agree — why can’t Hollywood use realism? Not just in aviation movies, but others as well.

    Sometimes, realism is even more exciting and entertaining than fiction.

    • Earl Turner says:

      “Airport” (not “Airplane”), the movie was very well done (the original one based on the novel by Arthur Hailey, not any of the sequels) as long as you can get past Dean Martin as the captain.
      Also, the move “Zero Hour” was well done, if you can find it anywhere. If you do, watch “Airplane” first.

  4. Brent says:

    Having watched the movie Saturday, your report is very accurate and I agree with your sentiments. Even with all that, I’m glad I went even though me and my AA buddy laughed most of the way through it. That AA is American Airlines, not Alcoholics Anonymous…

  5. Mike Busch says:

    So I guess this means I’ll be waiting for it to show up on Starz.

  6. Cary Alburn says:

    The best aviation movies were those that Ernie Gann helped script and technically advised–at least the aviation parts were reasonably accurate. That isn’t to say that I haven’t enjoyed a good many other aviation movies, but Hollywood really does a number on realism. I remember a comment made by Bob Morgan, command pilot of the real Memphis Belle, in response to a question from his audience about the movie, “Everything shown in the movie actually happened–just not to the same airplane and not all in one mission.”

    On the other hand, I’m just as glad that my flying experience hasn’t been tainted by Hollywood. It’s a whole lot better to have flown thousands of hours being bored with only a few moments of stark terror, than to have that reversed, ala Hollywood’s version. Flying by itself is wonderfully exciting, without being in the least frightening.


  7. Howard Kave says:

    In order to appreciate this flick I was required to suspend disbelief and suppresss the urge to be angry about the absurities that abound througout concerning anyting aviation. My wife got angry with me continually pointing out to her that this, and that, was not real.
    I agree that the scene wherein Capt. Whittaker does his own walk around, in a pouring rain no less, presaged the nonsense to come. Most egregious, in my view ( and I don’t fly turbines so some of the other inaccuracies went right by me) was how the aircraft was able to remain in relatively level flight in its last few seconds before touchdown. Assuming that the roll to inverted fight arrested the uncontrolled pitch down, why did that pitch down not resume the instant the our hero put the dirty side back down?
    However, I console myself with the thought that the movie is not really about aviation but alcoholism, something that I see often enough in my work and in that respect it was far more accurate than in its portrayal of pilots and airline flying.
    We all know that there exists a number, very small I hope, of alcoholic pilots, some of whom have even made it into the ranks of the majors. But that is not the point. I left the theatre convinced that the title, “Flight”, was a double entendre, given that the protagonist spends most of the film fleeing from himself and his demons. When he tells Don Cheadle, his lawyer, “Don’t tell me how to lie about my alcoholism, I have been doing that my whole life” I got it.
    So yeah, it’s not for us, Mac. If anyone tried to make a buck selling an accurate flying movie to the 200,000 some odd pilots with active medicals, or the 600,000 some odd who hold certificates of any kind, they would crash and burn.
    In fact, can you even name a flying flick, ever, that got it right?
    Right now, I cannot think of one.

    • Lee Dalton says:

      Besides Island in the Sky, I remembered four other movies that came very close to being accurate.

      I think the title was “Falling from the Sky” about the Gimli glider. Made for TV, it’s very hard to find it now.

      The second was “Miracle Landing” about the Hawaiian airliner that became a convertible. Also made for TV.

      Third was one (can’t remember title) portraying the crash landing of the United flight that crashed in Sioux City. Charleton Heston portrayed Capt. Al Haynes.

      And finally, “Flight 93″ did a very good job of telling that story with many of the movie characters played by the actual air controllers and others who were really part of the story.

  8. Joe Truncale says:

    Hey; relax, enjoy….its a movie….not a training film. :)

  9. Gordon says:

    I haven’t seen the film…nor do I intend to…nor have I seen any Hollywood film for at least a decade…preferring simply to not pollute my mind with garbage…

    But just thinking about that rolling inverted maneuver…that’s a heck of a way to save an airplane with elevator failure…anyone that could pull that off and land in a field and save most of the souls on board…well he would certainly earn forgiveness for his other sins…

  10. Thomas Boyle says:

    Wings, which won the first Academy Award for Best Picture in 1927, is necessarily fairly realistic as all the airplanes and the flying are real. The air combat sequences are awesome – they managed to have what seemed like a whole cloud of airplanes chasing each other inside the frame all at once (shot from a balloon). It’s a silent movie, really of curiosity value only, but Paramount actually re-released it in HD earlier this year. It may be available online.

  11. Pat McKinzie says:

    Cliff Robinson made a fairly realistic movie about an alcoholic DC-8 pilot I would recommend.
    If you are like me an just can take all the Hollywood stupidity regarding aviation.
    It was called “The Pilot”
    I once read a comment he made about why he made the film and he said as a pilot he hated every Hollywood treatment of aviation.

  12. Roger M. Derby says:

    Really, “Wings” is a good film, and anyone that would leave the ground in those collections of fabric and sticks is a hero. I found it enjoyable.
    Re: “Are we really that boring?” Yes, you better hope so. Hollywood wants “adventure,” hours of boredom punctuated … They only have 90 minutes.

  13. Doug says:

    I worked in the airline business for more than 45 years, from pilot to executive. In reality, ALPA has the HIMMs program just for pilots who abuse alcohol and drugs. This is a problem they would rather sweep under the table. Additionally, any pilot who loses their job will be represented by ALPA and will nearly always get the pilot reinstated thru arbitration because of the NLRB’s left leaning orientation. The good arbitrators will not be used by ALPA because they know they would lose more reinstatements. In the end, the customers lose.

    • Brad says:

      I don’t know what HIMMs program you’re talking about, but the one in place at our company specifically is quite set up for self-reporting. They make it very clear to everyone that if someone has a problem, he/she needs to take the first step by self-reporting through HIMMS. The pilot is then removed from all flying and the rehab treatment begins, but he is protected and annonymous, because he self-reported.

      Conversely, if someone shows up for work with banned substances in his system, he’d be fired immediately, and depending on what was found and especially if he ever had control of an aircraft, he could find himself in major legal trouble. HIMMS is completely out of the picture in such a case…’s all on the drunk/doper.

      And your statement that the NLRB will somehow get a job back for a drunk or high pilot who reported for duty is interesting. I’ve never, ever seen that at my company. If you show up drunk or high and get caught…you’re toast. No questions. The customers don’t “lose”.

      • Robert says:

        The substance abuse program at my company works like the one that Brad describes, in fact it’s been my understanding that these substance abuse policies are standard throughout the industry. There is help available for pilots who admit they have a problem and self-disclose, there is no tolerance for pilots who report for duty while under the influence. I believe that these programs have helped create greater awareness and accountability in the commercial pilot community and have contributed to a safer environment for the customer.

  14. David Gorrell says:

    Mac’s comments are right on. Sad to say that I did see the movie a few days ago after seeing Denzel on a talk show. He’s a superb actor and is excellent in the film. But the story, the development, the implications, and the conclusion are way off the mark.

    I’m surprised no one has mentioned that this is really a poor remake of one of the best airline pilot films made (and, yes I am a big fan of Gann’s “Island In The Sky”.) The original alcoholic Captain was played very well by Cliff Robertson in “The Pilot” with authentic Captain/First Officer and Captain/Chief Pilot relationships. Many aspects of the story in” Flight” are lifted directly from “The Pilot” – divorce, estranged child, suspect F/A, coverup, etc. But the accuracy and quality of the production are far better in Cliff’s film. (The overpriced DVD is available at Amazon and there is a not-very-good trailer on YouTube.)

  15. Benny says:

    We must remember that for the movie to be a money making success it has to be an interesting story to the majority of the people who see it who by a very,very large number are not pilots. Most people don’t notice or even know what the cockpit of an md-80 looks like so why would the director go the extra mile to make sure all this is correct? It’s a movie. Enjoy it! I also think that everyone has forgotton a wonderful movie which starred Cliff Robertson called “The Pilot” which was about the same sort of subject.

  16. JIM PRESTON says:

    I wonder if anyone contacted Clay Lacy for comments.

  17. JIM PRESTON says:

    The difference in Island in the Sky, film done by Clay Lacy, is that Cliff Robertson was a Commercial Pilot. You r right David it is a poor remake.

  18. Bill says:

    No. Mac is far more boring than any pilot or aviation writer that I have ever read.

  19. Jason Burke says:

    So, with the end of the cold war, but also with an uncontrollable urge to remake Top Gun, Hollywood has done the next best thing. They’ve picked the one thing that most Americans are afraid of (commercial airlines and our subconscious association with terrorism…or maybe the failing economy) and cobbled together a dog’s breakfast of technological fantasy.

    ‘Fraid so…flying is probably quite boring to anyone who only sees the commercial passenger side. What’s next, a panic-stricken ride on a bus or a train? Oh, wait…

  20. Dave L says:

    Realistic airplane movies do not sell tickets. After all, Hollywood is a for profit business. However, movies about the human condition and our character flaws will always appeal the masses. If you want authenticity, watch the Smithsonian series “Air Disaster,” it doesn’t get any better than that for realism. Forget the aviation part of Flight, it is based on the delema of a pilot with great skills whose personal behavior is unacceptable in our society. This premise could apply to any profession

    In a 38 year career, I met a few of these individual. Sometimes we saved their jobs and sometimes we did not. The lives of those that could not recover their sobriety, many times ended tragically. I find the ALPA comment written by a previous poster unfortunate, HIMMS saves lives, it is nothing to trivialize.

  21. Bob S says:

    There is one modern movie that is pretty good dramatically and gets the aviation part very accurately: “Whiskey Romeo Zulu” an Argentine film from 2005 was written and directed by Enrique Pineyro, a airline pilot down there who had a second career as a movie writer and actor (He also played the lead.) The DVD is available in this country from Amazon and on Netflix.

    It is a drama based on the true story of a pilot (again, Pinyero himself) who went to work for a budget airline in Argentina (LAPA) and was appalled by the lax safety culture he found. He tries to fight it for a while, until he realizes that the money guys are in total control, and their business strategy is that it’s cheaper to bribe officials to look the other way than it would be to follow all those overly cautious safety regs . . “after all, we’ve never had a crash” . . . .until they do.

    It is by far the best flying movie ever in terms of the dialogue, the highly realistic flying scenes, and the understanding of how accidents happen. It did pretty well in its home country because the public was very familiar with the whole story from the press coverage of the crash and the revelations that came out in the subsequent political/business scandal. It’s hard to know if, absent that awareness, any non-pilot audience would have had a clue what was going on.

  22. Dov Elyada says:

    Aviation people should not feel their line of interest is singled out by Hollywood for moronic treatment. Apart from rare exceptions, Hollywood tech-action movies are intended for the uninformed who have no better use for their leisure time. Being a sucker for Tommy Lee Jones, I fell into this trap again, allowing myself to watch, on satelite network, such a recycled movie: The USS Missouri is hijacked by a renegade group of ex-government-agents led by Tommy Lee Jones and it is up to Steven Seagal, the ship’s cook, to prevent the nuke-warhead cruise missiles on board from being sold to North Korea, and also to save Honolulu from 2 of them. I know a few things about naval armaments and operations, but nonsense like shown in that movie I never thought possible, even in a Hollywood movie. So wipe your tears and cheer up, pilots, you are in good company.

    • Rodney says:

      Very true, After 20 years in the submarine service I hate watching most submarine movies no matter who is in them. Occaisonally one gets it right but overall it is a farce with huge spaces and people accessing areas that would be filled with water underway. Same with aviation movies. All movies are fantasy and it is just how far outside reality they actually go that is different. Even decent movies make mistakes. I think it was in “Saving Private Ryan” that someone makes a joke about someone being a homosexual and it is just blown off (maybe a 5 second spot in the movie). In that era it would have led to a fistfight minimum. People didn’t do that then and it struck a sour note in an otherwise good movie. THe same with things like fist pumps, high fives, other modern expressions in movies depicting events from many years ago.

  23. Bob says:

    Thanks for the warning about “Flight”!
    I didn’t bother going to see Redtails either after I saw the trailer where a pilot shoots down an enemy plane and shout “YES” while doing a fist pump….. I’m a stickler for realism and I don’t really believe that any WWII pilot ever did that.

  24. Billy Kittner says:

    Its a movie…a movie!..I went see it. Yes it has aviation flaws but the whole scope of the film is the subject not what throttles were this or speed brakes that. Why if we had warp drive and star ships some would argue a constitution class ship doesnt have those nacelles. Yet we go see those movies…ok star trek 5 really sucked lol
    We know Titanic sank, but yet it was a box office cash cow. FLIGHT is a movie…if you go see it enjoy it. Dont sweat the details cause hollywood isnt into realism. 16 Right fills that void just fine.
    were impacted by Sandy. If you have friends, family or just aviation interests here. Make a donation please. If anything check on a flying buddy.

    • Brad says:

      It’s because people actually fly on planes, not star ships with warp drives. This movie impugns a profession that in reality does a very good job of policing its own, and has little tollerance for substance abusers. Yes it’s Hollywood, but ma and pa Kettle from Peoria aren’t going to necessarily make that distinction.

    • Bob says:

      Sure it’s just a movie, but some one in the profession usually can’t watch a movie about what they do for a living and not pick up on the mistakes or inaccuracies, we can’t help ourselves…
      Lawyers watching courtroom scenes have the same problem too, so do truckers when watching truck driving movies. I remember watching “Dances With Wolves” and seeing Kevin Costner taking a nap while his horse stood outside saddled and bridled. Good thing there weren’t any old cavalry men around to see that because they always took care of their mounts before taking care of themselves!

    • DEL says:

      It’s a fiction movie, alright! But isn’t a fiction movie that’s true to the background details better than a movie that presumes the public is stupid and will buy anything? Take it to the extreme and you’ll see what I mean: Imagine a fiction movie about the American Civil War in which the hero, a Hungarian B29 pilot, wins the day in the battle of Los Angeles by dropping blasphemous propaganda leaflets on the Muslims.

  25. Dear Mac: I do not recall, ever, posting a Website all run together; so it is now
    reflects what I remember it to have been!

    Please check your original copy!


    Doug. Nichols EAA 33221

  26. Sweet Jesus you retired fxxxers have some time on your hands! LOL. I will have to forward this one to my personal account and read it when I get a break from my miserable working stiff life. BADAZZ NEPHEW

    From: [] On Behalf Of Swiss Builder
    Sent: Thursday, November 08, 2012 2:32 AM
    To: BA-BUD MAN(Who Wrote: “If your thinking of going to movies (Flight), don’t.”
    Subject: FW: Are We Really That Boring?—-Hey 1stRevu Comment
    Swiss.Builder Answer:
    Here’s one comment, but mine will be the 2nd you will read..
    JJ Welch says:
    November 6, 2012 at 13:12

    I was probably not going to see this movie just from the previews. Now with your blog and the one Paul Bertorelli did at Avweb I really will be avoiding this one for 2 big reasons
    1) The aviation stuff is handled terribly
    2) Substance abuse hits a little too close to home
    On a lighter note: I always enjoy reading your blogs and articles.

    As the revised subj. line says. 1stRevu Comment….. wraps it up for me. (?)
    swiss. builder says:
    Especially, when the critic is biased. (Welch probably squeezes grapes in the dark)
    It probably would be better to go see the film yourself and develop your own opinion. Of course, I don’t know, you may have seen the film and McClellan’s blog does wrap it up for you?

    Personally, I don’t go to a movie solely for entertainment , not to say that quality isn’t important to me. But, enjoyment of the style and technique of the actors’ role playing is a learning process for myself. Out of work, I need to act a lot now, within a mindset of between jobs with the next gig more likely a spiritual one with a guy who appeared on earth to save mankind about 2100 years ago, as we believe.
    More to the point is; how the film was developed? Who wrote the script? Directors? Crew? Location Sites? The ability of players to transform themselves into situations of the characters’ role. Just some of the parts I enjoy going to a film about aviation or wolves in battle with vampires.
    McClellan’s “MAC” Left Seat Blog critique on the film is overdone on the mechanical part of the film without his opinion on artistic qualities. Filmmaking is an art form. If he was expecting to see a training film, too bad, he didn’t “pre-flight” the synopsis of all subjects/topics better. He might have saved himself a ten spot. i..e. If he did not buy popcorn or take his main squeeze. Maybe that’s the real reason he’s jerked off about the film. He’s taking it out on the Propmaster and Set Designer instead of having a coke, popcorn and getting a little exercise on the side. Or, on the top… or, the undercarriage. Sorry, my dreams, sometimes, interfere with focus.
    I am not a pilot but, I did appreciate Denzel’s technique convincing the audience that, as captain of that C RJ or D-80-J jumbo, was flying inverted with a little help from CGI special effects. Why does McClellan think the “business” racks up baffo box offices every weekend? Hollywood knows it. Audiences want to be entertained, not brow beaten with engineering exactness and duplicity. Congratulations to Skylark for
    a film that allows Marge and Harry Q Public a little escape from day-to-day routine and were entertained a couple of hours while being introduced to some pilots’ real life anxieties and others’ compulsive addictive behaviors while telling the consequences when a person in public services “… betray the public trust.”


  27. Bob Doughty says:

    I had thought about seeing this movie, but not probably not. I will save my money for the new James Bond flick!!
    When it comes to airplane movies….just buy the book. Your imagination is way better!!

  28. Eric7 says:

    I’ve always joked to my wife that the way to ruin a good movie is to put an airplane in it. It’s not that they get the details wrong (they do), it just seems that directors often use an airplane to try to make up for a poor plot or poor acting (there are exceptions as some have noted.) But I have to say, Flight is an exception. I thought this movie was great. Yes, there were loads of technical errors and inaccuracies but they were overshadowed by the superb story, directing and acting. That said, there were parts of the flying scenes I really enjoyed. I think the film really captured the brain-scrambling nature of severe turbulence. And what pilot couldn’t relate to the relief when they broke out into the clear with all those beautiful towering cumulus around them. The point is the movie made me feel just as I would had I been in the pilots seat. I was worn out after that scene.

    And then there was what the movie was really about: alcoholism. As one poster said, he wasn’t going to see it was because this part would hit a little too close to home. I can understand that. They nailed this part of the movie and don’t ask me how I know. I could not talk about it with my wife for days.

    And last but not least, how about the ending? “Disappointed?” – Mac, surely you are kidding? It could not have been more perfect. And real, too – at least for some people. The moment an alcoholic can tell the world, “my name is____ and I’m an alcoholic” is the beginning of a climb out of a hellhole. Many a pilot has hit this rock bottom and the movie portrayed it accurately, if not with perfectly accurate facts, then with emotion. If you want technical accuracy, watch a documentary. If you want to be entertained by a story with impact, see Flight. Two thumbs up.

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