Jumpseat: The Fantasy of Flight, the Movie
When Flight debuted, I shook my head, like most of my airline colleagues. A Super 80 rolled upside down? Really? That being said, the preposterous nature of the event was still intriguing. I was tempted to see the movie for that reason alone. But I would ruin date night with my wife, being compelled to whisper expert commentary throughout the entire viewing. (Spoiler alert: Read ahead with caution if you haven’t yet seen the movie.)
Once I learned that the drama’s premise was an airline pilot with a drug and alcohol addiction, I dismissed Flight altogether. Why should I endorse an insulting portrayal of my profession? Our pilot union was quick to publicly rebuke the premise. But when it came out on DVD, I couldn’t resist. Not only were nonpilot friends commenting on the film, but so were flight attendants. And the feedback was positive, which I found disturbing. I felt the GA readership of this magazine was owed an explanation — not that one was really required, of course. Flying’s readers are intelligent people with the ability to separate basic fact from fiction. But I want to have a little fun with Hollywood. After all, the filmmakers had fun at the expense of my profession.
First, I’d like to address addiction and airline pilots. Do we have these issues? Of course. Just like doctors, lawyers, teachers, etc. Our career has very high hidden stresses, a catalyst for addiction. As for illegal-drug addiction, the numbers among our ranks are infinitesimally small. The risk versus reward is far too great. Enough said.
Alcoholism? Yes. We have a very small percentage of alcoholics. Those that seek help are given the same respect and dignity as those being treated for other medical conditions. The alcohol program employed at my airline demands a no-nonsense adherence to very strict guidelines. Failure to comply has straightforward consequences: termination of employment. And yes, intervention techniques are utilized in serious circumstances. The news media certainly has focused on the extraordinary cases rather than those of us that mundanely progress through our careers without so much as a glass of wine on a layover. Apparently, the sensational aspect of Denzel Washington snorting lines of coke and swigging a warm beer before a trip was just too gratifying for the screenwriter to pass up. In addition, deftly mixing up the ingredients for a screwdriver in flight while making an in-person PA takes real talent. I can’t even mix a cup of coffee without supervision.
Add to the whole insanity a first officer who suspects an issue but doesn’t take the responsibility to assert himself by suggesting that his captain might consider a sick call. Come on. The drunk scenario is part of Pilot Interview 101. In truth, the first officer might have faced his own trial for allowing the captain to perform his duties while intoxicated. However, considering that the copilot spent most of the movie screaming or quivering in fear, that reality wasn’t in the cards.
The worst cases of airline pilots forced into the alcohol program usually involve incidents of pushing the eight-hour limit between bottle and throttle, not blatant consumption just prior to a trip. Even for an addicted pilot, random drug tests and the required six-month medical are enough of a deterrent, notwithstanding the obvious consequences for air safety.
Moving on to operational fantasies, in chronological order, I’ll start with the walk-around inspection. Not only did the captain perform the walk-around, but he did it in a torrential downpour — with dark Ray-Ban sunglasses, no less. Sorry, but the copilot would have been the drowned rat in real life. And where was Denzel’s preflight flashlight, by the way?
Denzel’s shot of oxygen from the mask on the ground? Nope, not likely. That’s a real sign that somebody is suffering from a hangover.
How about the takeoff? No doubt, as the airplane turned onto the departure runway, the weather radar displayed red, yellow and green contours. Would a competent and responsible captain even consider departing? His cavalier narration during the takeoff roll was a fair assessment of his stupidity.
After our hero, Capt. Whitaker, positioned his airplane in peril to penetrate the weather, he opted to accelerate far beyond the 250-knot restriction below 10,000 feet. Why? To exchange airspeed for energy, in order to facilitate a rapid climb above the storm. What’s the real procedure? We slow to turbulence-penetration speed and deviate around the weather. Slower speeds reduce the effects of flying through airborne speed bumps. Considering the chaotic scene of falling debris in the cabin, I would have classified the turbulence as severe, which is not good for people or airframes — especially at high speed.