Jumpseat: The Fantasy of Flight, the Movie

A reality check for Hollywood.

Jumpseat Flight movie

Jumpseat Flight movie

** In the real world, Flight's portrayal of an
airline emergency wouldn't fly.**

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.

One of my favorite snippets was when Denzel gave the yoke to his copilot. After displaying his recklessness by almost losing control of the airplane, it was suddenly OK for the first officer to fly?

I’ll give the aviation consultant an A for effort on one detail regarding Denzel’s inflight nap. Using an approach plate as an eye visor is innovative. Some of us utilize an en route chart strategically positioned on the windscreen to blot out the sun at high altitudes, but that’s only for glare and UV protection.

OK, now onto the big event. The horizontal stabilizer jams. Is it possible? Absolutely. As a matter of fact, the movie was rumored to be loosely based on the circumstances behind the crash of Alaska Airlines Flight 261 on Jan. 31, 2000. The jackscrew of the Alaska Airlines airplane froze. Although the crew might have been able to divert earlier, they elected to troubleshoot the problem with the radio assistance of Alaska Airlines maintenance. They crashed into the Pacific Ocean 2.7 miles north of Anacapa Island off the coast of California. There were no survivors. In the movie, do you think it’s possible the jammed stabilizer might have been caused by severe turbulence penetration at an airspeed far beyond max maneuvering speed? Just sayin’ ...

As Capt. Whitaker struggles to control the Super 80, the extreme dive elicits an aural warning (“Whoop whoop! Pull up!”) from the GPWS (ground proximity warning system). The warning begins sometime while screaming out of FL 310. Is it realistic? Not quite. The system is predicated on ... well, as the name suggests, proximity to the terrain. Unless the state of Georgia had a recent volcanic eruption that created an Everest-size mountain, you wouldn’t hear a peep from the GPWS until much closer to the ground.

I realize the descent rate of the airplane was extreme, but calling for the brace position through 28,000 feet? Let’s just chalk that up to poetic license. Instructing passengers to put their heads between their legs isn’t exactly going to save them from the effect of meeting the ground at a 30-degree nose-down angle anyway.

Denzel commands his copilot to dump fuel, which is a great idea before a crash. Only one problem: No such system exists on a Super 80. Along the lines of no such system, how about that Wile E. Coyote TNT red plunger handle? I can’t even fathom the purpose of that mythical thing. If its purpose was to free the hydraulic fluid jamming the stabilizer, we have another fallacy. The horizontal stabilizer is controlled mechanically by cables and a jackscrew. With both pilots unable to reach the plunger because of the unusual attitude, the script made great drama of the No. 1 flight attendant’s participation in its operation. Only a good flight attendant could fight negative G’s. Thumbs up for crew resource management, however.

As most people know from having watched Flight's trailer, the solution to a lack of positive pitch control was to roll the Super 80 inverted. Only an ace of the base, crack-addict captain could perform such an aerobatic maneuver. Is it aerodynamically possible? I defer to my fellow contributing editor and technical expert Peter Garrison, who answered the question in Flying's January 2013 issue. The short answer is yes, but not for very long, certainly not as long as the movie suggests.

With the Super 80 lacking an inverted system, the loss of oil lubrication while flying upside down (and maybe a compressor stall or two) leads the audience to believe that a dual-engine fire is the ultimate result. I’m no expert, but honestly, I don’t think a jet engine really cares about its attitude relative to the horizon.

Once the airplane converts to a glider, the slow-motion, life-flashing-before-your-eyes scene begins as Capt. Whitaker guides the Super 80 in for a literal off-field landing. The winglet guillotining a church steeple provides a nice dramatic effect. Too bad Super 80s don’t have winglets. I did enjoy the special effects of the crash.

Finally, in regard to NTSB protocol, what’s the probability of interviewing an injured crew member sedated with narcotics within hours of an accident? I’ll let you ponder that idea. In addition, the big scene where Capt. Whitaker finds his integrity and confesses his addiction to the world at the NTSB public hearing is not likely. You may find this hard to believe, but the public hearing is scripted. The confession would never have occurred in such a forum, nor would the captain have been grilled as if he was in a courtroom.

Fantasy of Flight? It is. Sorry to have ruined the movie.

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