Last weekend I saw Flight, the movie starring Denzel Washington. I was asked how realistic the film was in terms of actually doing something like that in a real airplane.
Although my piloting is limited to small planes, the forces of nature and aerodynamics apply to all aircraft equally so let’s dive in.
The mechanical problem that brought down the plane parallels the true story of Alaska Airlines flight 261. In that incident, an elevator system problem caused the MD-83 to depart from controlled flight and eventually crash into the ocean after a series of unsuccessful attempts by the crew to regain control of the airplane. As with the movie, the cause of the malfunction was related to the jack screw, a piece of equipment that moves the elevator (or more exactly, the elevator trim). In this photo, the elevator of a Delta 727 is deflected up, which pushes the tail down and nose up. An MD-83 uses the same layout as a 727.
The fictional airplane (left) resembles a a real MD-83 (right) but has winglets, unlike real models.
The flight departs Orlando in nasty weather bound for Atlanta. On departure, ATC dialog between the copilot and the controller is mostly accurate although the the typical big airline copilot wouldn’t sound like he has been flying for only a couple of weeks. As they climb into the bad weather it becomes very turbulent. The Captain eyes the cockpit weather radar and makes a run for some clear air he spies. He does this by picking up speed to dangerous levels.
In reality, the last thing we want to do in turbulent conditions is speed up the airplane. Instead, we slow down to reduce the force that turbulent air inflicts on the airplane and on the passengers. In fact, although it doesn’t make for a gripping five minutes of film, it’s common for airline crews to taxi into takeoff position on the runway and examine the weather radar view of what lies ahead so as to make an informed go/no-go decision.
But okay, this scene is the Hollywood equivalent of racing the train to the railroad crossing…and just barely beating it. It’s there to establish the Captain as larger than life and the copilot as a shaky newbie, before the big problem arises in a few minutes.
The Captain (Denzel) is feeling some lag from a late night of booze, sex, and coke and hands the plane over to the copilot before nodding off for a while.
And then we hear and feel The Big Bang as the copilot’s flight controls suddenly stop working and the plane pitches over into a dive. Oddly, turning the yoke from side to side as he moves the control column to and fro doesn’t rock the wings. Apparently MD-83s only roll for captains.
The Captain rouses from his slumber and takes uncontrol of the crippled bird. It is quickly determined that there is no elevator control and that the elevator is stuck in the down position.
The pilots try a few emergency procedures to no avail. As the plane descends, the Captain orders the the copilot to deploy flaps (I forget how much but not full flaps) and lower the landing gear (the wheels). He wants some aerodynamic drag to slow the dive speed and buy time to find a few more rabbits in his cap.
During this scene the filmmakers got it right in principle. The pilots only deployed minimal flaps, presumably to avoid them from being torn off in the dive. Don’t get me wrong, a jet in a dive from 30,000 feet is probably moving right along and flap deployment seems it could cause more problems than not. That said, I will give them a thumbs up on the flaps and gear as a theoretical means of slowing the dive.
But now we run into trouble. As they get down near the ground Denzel decides to roll the plane inverted to counter the downward pitch forces from the stuck elevator. It is true that most any airplane can fly upside down without falling apart. Boeing pilot Tex Johnston famously rolled the prototype 707 and that worked out just fine.
When an airplane is rolled the nose has a tendency to drop. You can see this with the 707 above; it comes out of the roll in a shallow dive. The difference between the 707 and Denzel’s airplane is that the 707 starts the roll in a climb, whereas Denzel’s plane is already pointed down hill. If the plane had had enough altitude to make it all the way over to inverted flight it would have still ended up nose down.
In this movie trailer screen capture we see that he started the roll at less than 1000 feet above the ground (800 on the right scale).
Applying down elevator while inverted will indeed force the nose up. Unfortunately, to get to level inverted flight from a 15-20 degree nose down inverted attitude, while closing in on the ground at 230 Kts (on the left) would result in pretty strong negative G that would most certainly cause structural failure.
Fortunately, Denzel Washington is up to the challenge and we made it to straight and level inverted flight. Not for long though, now the darn engines quit so we won’t be gliding upside down to Atlanta after all. Instead, we need to roll the crippled jet back upright to execute a forced landing.
Remember that stuck elevator? It seems to have mysteriously lost its ability to cause trouble as the plane rolled back upright. Wouldn’t that elevator drop the nose again and end the flight right then and there?
It’s a thumbs down on successfully rolling a broken airliner from 820 feet while heading downhill at 230 Kts. and then rolling it back over into a decent crash landing.
It’s all in good fun though and for the most part the film did a good job with attention to detail. As good a pilot as Denzel is, he needs some ground school on the proper application of aviator sunglasses.