November 14, 2012
The movie trailer intrigued me. A plane in distress is put down in an open field by a great pilot who uses a very unusual maneuver to save the day: He rolls the plane inverted to arrest an uncontrolled dive, saving 96 of the 102 “souls on board.” Denzel Washington plays the Captain, “Whip” Whitaker, in Flight and that’s enough reason for me to see the movie (big Denzel fan). So I headed off for a Saturday matinee, fully expecting that this movie, like almost every aviation movie I’ve ever seen, would take some liberties with the technical aspects of the flying scenes. I wasn’t disappointed.
The plane is a JR-88, a type that exists only in the mind of a screenwriter. It looks suspiciously like an MD-88, but I suppose when you’re making a movie about an aviation disaster you don’t want the liability of naming an actual type of plane. It’s a rainy morning in Orlando, and Captain Whitaker is completing his pre-flight walkaround inspection of the plane. That’s when the movie loses all credibility for me. Very few captains perform any walkaround, and virtually no captain will do one in the rain.
The cockpit is authentic, and it’s definitely an MD-80 variant. The Air Traffic Control (ATC) chatter is pretty realistic, if not perfect, and the crew coordination on takeoff and climb is also not bad. But then they encounter some rough weather, and things start to go Hollywood. Whip decides to penetrate this weather in a very unconventional way. For some reason he decides to stay low and push the speed up until the plane is hitting the max allowable speed, indicated on the airspeed indicator by a “barber pole.” The First Officer (FO) brings the excessive speed to his attention, but Whip isn’t deterred, and applies even more power.
In the real world, the pilots would have been thinking much farther ahead, trying to avoid the weather displayed on their weather radar. After encountering rough air, one of the first things we do is reduce speed to soften the bumps. (Much like riding on a bumpy road in your car, the effect of the bumps is amplified if you go faster.) At this low altitude, we would use a speed of 290 knots to get a better ride. Flying that close to the “barber pole” in that kind of turbulence not only makes for a very uncomfortable ride, but also exposes the plane to potential structural damage.
After successfully penetrating the weather and finding smooth air, Whip’s plane is cruising at 30,000 feet when the plane begins an uncontrollable dive. You can hear the audio warning “SINK RATE, SINK RATE,” which is a warning that would only occur if the plane is down low and descending too fast. Up at altitude we can, and do, descend at rates that would be unacceptable when in the approach phase of flight. We sometimes descend at rates in excess of 4,000 feet per minute if necessary for ATC, or to make a crossing restriction. We don’t want to get meaningless warnings about this, so the system is programmed to inhibit these alerts when we’re more than 2,500 feet above the ground.
A number of things happen at this point in the movie that a good technical adviser could have caught. For one, Whip directs the FO to dump fuel. I think I heard him say that they needed to reduce the weight of the plane, but this wouldn’t really be a consideration in this situation. I guess one conceivable reason you might want to dump fuel is to minimize the amount on board to feed a post-crash fire, but the MD-88 doesn’t even have fuel dump capability (though perhaps the JR-88 does).
Whip then tells ATC that they’ve lost hydraulics to the elevator. Maybe in the make-believe JR-88, but the MD-88 doesn’t have hydraulically powered flight controls. It’s all cables and pushrods moving control tabs on the elevator, rudder, and ailerons. Next, he directs the FO to put the flaps down. I’m not sure what this would accomplish, other than to cause structural damage to the flaps and maybe even rip them off the plane. The flaps have maximum speeds associated with each setting and we’re very careful not to exceed these limitations.
As if things weren’t bad enough, they now have a fire in the left engine—a pretty random occurrence that doesn’t seem related in any way to the mechanical difficulty they’re having with the plane’s elevator. They’re just having a really bad day. Whip directs the FO to “put out the fire,” and he dutifully pulls the fire handle for the left engine. This action shoots halon into the burning engine to put out the fire, but that’s not all it does. It also isolates the engine, closing the fuel valve, hydraulic valve, and pneumatic valve associated with that engine. In other words, it shuts down the engine. (All airliners work this way, and this function of the fire handle is part of the certification requirements for transport category airplanes.) But in the movie, the engine keeps running.
Minutes later they have a fire in the right engine! Wow, this is a really, really bad day. The chances of two independent engine fires right on the heels of a catastrophic flight control failure are just astronomical. So rare, in fact, that we don’t ever train for these kind of compound failures. Whip directs the FO to put out this fire, and he pulls the fire handle for the right engine. If you did this in the real world, things would get very quiet as you would now become a glider, with no engines running. If this really happened, we’d let that second engine burn because we’d need the power from it to continue flying.
And now we get to the fantastic display of airmanship by Whip. He rolls the plane inverted while directing the FO to retract the flaps and directing one of the flight attendants to pull a mysterious handle on the center console “on the count of three.” I’m not sure what that handle did. If he explained it, I missed it. But I’m very familiar with the MD-88 cockpit, and I don’t remember any such handle. He also directs her to push the throttles forward during this maneuver. After flying inverted for a a brief time, he rolls back to normal flight attitude just in time to crash land in an open field.
Could this maneuver actually work? It’s an imaginative premise. They were in a situation where the elevator was locked in a position forcing a nose-down pitch attitude, which caused a rapid dive. By going inverted, the nose will be pointed skyward, but there would still be no control of the pitch. With enough power, the plane would now climb skyward under negative G’s, but the pitch attitude would still be uncontrollable. In such a desperate situation I guess it would be worth a try. As I watched the movie, I found myself willing to suspend disbelief and just go along with Whip’s fantastic flying ability. But even superb flying can’t overcome unresponsive controls.
In the aftermath of the accident, the NTSB determines the cause of the dive to be a mechanical defect in a jackscrew that moves the elevator trim. This is taken from a real-life accident which occurred in January 2000, when Alaska Air Flight 261, an MD-83, suffered just such a failure of the jackscrew, causing a loss of pitch control. At one point, that crew actually attempted to arrest the dive by going inverted, but the plane continued to descend at a rate in excess of 13,000 feet per minute and crashed into the Pacific Ocean.
Watch the movie trailer, below:
October 14, 2011
I fly a lot. OK, I know that’s no surprise, but I’m talking about flying as a passenger, sitting in back, getting to and from work. And maybe I’m a curmudgeon, or it’s just familiarity breeding contempt, but I find myself cringing at all the canned phrases and announcements I hear during the process. Phrases I hear from my own co-workers.
One of my favorites is the airport security announcement, repeated several times each hour, which lets us know the current threat level, as determined by the Department of Homeland Security. I love the way it starts: “May I have your attention for an important security announcement.” Look around. Not one person is paying attention. No one stops. No one even hears it any more. It’s like that irritating voice advising you every five seconds: “Caution. The moving walkway is ending.”
But I listen to it, wondering what the threat level is today. Wait for it. Wait for it…. Orange again! Yep, that’s where my money was. Oh, it’s not Red? I didn’t think so. My first clue was the absence of cammy-wearing, M-16-toting soldiers. Not Green? Will we ever see Green again? “That’s right, it’s Green. You are officially encouraged to pay no attention to security and imagine you once again live a world we haven’t seen in over a decade.” Oh Green, how I long for you!
At the gate area (often referred to by gate agents, for some inexplicable reason, as the “gatehouse”), we get a lot of PAs such as “This will serve as a gate change announcement” or “This will serve as a final boarding announcement.” And it serves well, but I’m always left to wonder why they didn’t just trot out the real thing. Be bold! Make a final boarding announcement! And while we’re at it, if it’s really a final boarding announcement, wouldn’t it be made just once? I’ve heard up to half a dozen “final” boarding announcements for the same flight. It’s hard to blame the passenger who waits for the seventh.
Once on the plane, I’m welcomed aboard at every opportunity. Every PA by the crew inevitably starts with “Once again, welcome aboard.” I’ve been welcomed as many as nine times before pushback, and then, for good measure, another time or two shortly after takeoff. C’mon, it’s not the Queen Mary. No one’s placing a lei around my neck or giving me a mai tai, and I’m not going to be sending postcards about this travel experience.
Many flight attendants don’t seem capable of formulating a simple request such as “Please fasten your seatbelt.” Instead, it’s “We do ask that you fasten your seatbelt.” With some, the insertion of “We do” becomes epidemic, infecting almost every simple PA.
One of my favorites is the after-landing PA. Some flight attendants must get a bonus for how quickly they can get on that PA to welcome you to your destination; I’ve often heard it before we exit the runway. It goes something like “Crazy Clown Airlines would like to be the first to welcome you to New York,” like there’s a mob trying to beat them to the punch. I like to get the jump on them when I’m traveling with someone. Right after landing, I’ll turn and say a simple “Welcome to New York.” Life’s little victories.
November 30, 2010
When I’m taxiing around airports worldwide, I’m always amused to see that they still have windsocks. It’s maybe the only thing from the first days of aviation that you’ll still find at modern airports. It’s low tech, but it gives a clear indication of wind strength and direction…at least to anyone who’s looking. Many pilots probably don’t even notice the windsocks at major airports. After all, you don’t really need them. Most large airports continuously broadcast the local weather, including winds, and the tower will normally state the winds when clearing a plane for takeoff or landing.
So why are they there? Maybe they’ve survived because they’re virtually maintenance-free and provide a simple backup in case the ATIS (Automatic Terminal Information Service) fails. I like to think of them as a link to the early days, giving us a connection to Wilbur and Orville. The windsock is familiar to every pilot who has ever flown, all the way back to 1903. It’s hard to think of anything more universal in aviation.
Another item that’s been around a long time is the checklist. I don’t think the Wrights had one, but it wouldn’t surprise me. With very simple planes, a pilot might be able to get away with just depending on memory to cover all the items “necessary to live,” but in the airline world everything is backed up by checklists. The organization and content of the checklists will vary from airline to airline, but the underlying concept is the same: Humans make mistakes, and we need to check that we’re doing it right.
I was a new First Officer at a regional airline in the early 90s, and we were departing Pittsburgh, heading back to Dulles airport in Washington D.C. I had been on the job long enough to be very comfortable with the pace of getting engines started, running checklists and configuring the plane for takeoff.
On this day, we had a very short taxi to the active runway. I had just started the second engine and completed the After Start checklist when the tower cleared us for takeoff. The Captain keyed his mike and acknowledged the takeoff clearance, and started taxiing onto the runway. I realized we hadn’t done the Taxi checklist or the Before Takeoff checklist, and I began reciting both lists as fast as I could get the words out. It was a race to see if I could finish before the plane became airborne…and it was close. There were some serious items on those checklists that affect safety of flight, including takeoff flap setting. My memory is a little fuzzy now, but I’m pretty sure I was selecting takeoff flaps as we accelerated down the runway.
I remember feeling angry about being put in this situation. Then I got mad at myself. I could have (and should have) put a stop to it just by speaking up and telling the Captain we weren’t ready to go. I made a promise to myself that I wouldn’t fall into this trap ever again.
The root of the problem was being rushed. It’s when we get taken out of our normal pace of doing things that we tend to miss items or make mistakes. Checklists are only good if we take the time to use them. And that’s why our training hammers home the point: Do it methodically, and take your time. One of my early simulator instructors, a retired Air Force C-5 pilot, had a great piece of advice for how to handle emergency situations: “If you’re going to do something stupid, do it slowly.” I’ve heard some old-timers say the first thing to do in any emergency is to wind the clock. The point is that you don’t just rush to react — you take a breath and handle it in a measured pace.