(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.]