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.