Flight (movie)

(Spoiler Alert!) Four of us went to see Flight, starring Denzel Washington, last night at the Boston Common theater. The aviation-related parts of the movie are moderately unrealistic. A plane suffers a pitch trim control failure similar to that which caused the crash of an Alaska Airlines MD-83 in 2000 (Wikipedia). One of the pilots figures out how to make a reasonably good off-airport landing nonetheless. After the crash, it is discovered that he is an alcoholic and cocaine user. (Some of the alcohol stuff seems to have been drawn from America West 556.)

Here are the parts that, based on my brief career as an airline pilot, struck me as unrealistic:

  • the captain does the walk-around inspection, rather than the first officer, despite the fact that it is first flight of the day and annoying TSA security checks must be done and despite the fact that it is raining heavily; generally the first officer does the walk-around
  • the captain engages in a lot of extra chat during the takeoff roll and initial climb
  • despite heavy turbulence, the captain elects to speed up rather than slow down. In fact, the captain accelerates to the smooth air redline for no apparent reason. Nobody points out afterwards that this would have been likely to stress/bend the airframe.
  • the captain tells the first officer to dump the fuel at one point, but smaller/newer airliners such as the one in the movie don’t offer this feature (Wikipedia); in any case, the engines continue to produce power after the fuel has supposedly been dumped
  • no attempt is made to use any checklist during any phase of flight
  • the captain consumes three bottles of alcohol apparently with the assumption that the airline’s accounting system won’t notice whereas in fact the alcohol stock on an airliner and the revenue from that alcohol are as carefully matched up as anything else in the American retail world
  • the captain talks about a trip that he made in a Cessna 172 (slow four-seat airplane) from Georgia straight to Jamaica. This would involve a flight over Cuba, which requires a huge amount of paperwork in advance, or driving all the way around via Turks and Caicos and Haiti. The Bahamas would have been a much more likely destination for a carefree Cessna pilot.

The non-certificated member of our group asked us if we thought that the basic idea could have worked, i.e., rolling an airliner with a jammed nose-down pitch in order to produce level flight. The consensus among the pilots was that it could be possible.

We pilots were disappointed that the movie is not actually about aviation. It is yet another Hollywood celebration of addiction and recovery. If you’re not interested in alcoholism and AA you probably won’t love the movie, though it is well acted. It is unclear what one can learn from the movie other than “Being an alcoholic is a bad idea.”

[Separately, a friend in recurrent simulator training for the business jet that he owned was invited by the instructor to fly a few approaches, drink one glass of wine, and then fly an additional approach in the sim. It turned out that his performance was substantially impaired. So it is hard to understand how the main character of Flight could have done his job with so much alcohol in his system for so many years. The captain's blood alcohol level was supposedly 0.24 percent. Compare to a Delta pilot arrested in Amsterdam for having a blood alcohol level of 0.023 percent (story). The FAA limit for private pilots is 0.04 percent, though with an additional limitation that there must have been 8 hours between the last drink and the flight. Most airline employees are subject to a 12-hour rule and a 0-percent limit.]

7 Comments

  1. Jerry

    November 13, 2012 @ 2:47 pm

    1

    Thanks for providing this and actually it seems spoiler free.

    When the trailer first came out at first glance it seemed to be a science fiction movie — how did that totally unlikely landing get made? And then as the trailer wore on, it disappointingly turned into a Lifetime channel movie of the week.

    So I’ve been wondering if it’s an aviation movie or an alcohol recovery movie. So thanks.

    IIRC from the trailer, I can’t imagine that landing is possible as portrayed (in the trailer), if only because the final roll (in the trailer) seems to occur from straight and level (slightly nose high inverted) flight to straight and level flight at about 200 feet altitude with no altitude loss.

  2. floydthebarber

    November 13, 2012 @ 6:51 pm

    2

    I haven’t seen the movie, but engines on airliners aren’t designed to run upside down. In particular, all of the oil would drain out, so they would only operate for a very short time, if at all. Military engines are entirely different beasts. Imagine your car running upside down. That wouldn’t go well either.

  3. Whitaker

    November 13, 2012 @ 8:51 pm

    3

    Flying over Cuba, could be easier than you claim. Turn transponder to “off” position. Fly direct to Jamaica. No paperwork necessary!

  4. philg

    November 13, 2012 @ 9:34 pm

    4

    Floyd: They do cover the issue with the oil system and inverted flight in the movie. The engines in fact catch on fire. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/China_Airlines_Flight_006 says that a Boeing 747 was flown inverted for about 2.5 minutes and the engines continued to run normally. I did some quick checks and found that some turbojet trainers, e.g., the L-29, are limited to 15-30 seconds of inverted flight time, presumably for the reasons that you mention.

  5. Kia

    November 14, 2012 @ 5:50 am

    5

    I have always been amazed at Hollywood film-makers’ lack of basic fact-checking when it comes to aviation or nearly anything else, for that matter. To me at least it is very insulting as it seems that the movie producers are saying: “Oh, don’t worry about the facts, these idiots watching the film are all too dumb to notice…”
    Lol. Maybe they’re right.
    Thanks for showing their errors, Phil.

  6. Graeme

    November 16, 2012 @ 6:03 pm

    6

    Phil-
    Great review and critique of the movie. However, the Producers/directors got a lot right. The frequency of the departure control was right, and some of the call outs on the flight (even though they happened in increased time).
    There were no check lists used, but I agree with Jerry. A Roll from inverted flight at 200 feet to level with a jammed down elevator? I dont think so.

    Also, did you notice the captain calling for full power after he commanded BOTH engines to be shut down? Is this even possible? Twice. Not sure you can have only 2 pax fatalities while in a “theoretical” full thrust, high airspeed configuration when it contacts the ground, no matter what attitude or descent rate. I think the aircraft broke due to the overspeeding on take off and his abrupt pull up to VFR on top. NTSB even mentioned that the jackscew had 1200 hours left on it usefull life, despite it being faulty.

  7. Andy

    November 21, 2012 @ 5:52 pm

    7

    Your friend must not be a drinker, there used to be a saying “Show me a pilot, and I’ll show you a bar”. A heavy alcoholic will be totally unaffected by a 6 pack. Used to know a helicopter pilot who probably never dropped down below 0.1 and I’d fly with him drunk over most pilots I know sober if I had a choice.

    Before all the hoopla about drinking come about, half the british airways pilots I knew would not be able to legally drive on us roads. And about 95% of the russian ones.

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