Pilots, Alcohol, Hollywood and Farce

October 29, 2014

THE OTHER NIGHT I went and re-watched the Denzel Washington movie,”Flight,” thinking that maybe it wouldn’t bother me as much as it did the first time I saw it.

A nice idea, but it was even more aggravating the second time around. I’m not sure who gets the bigger screw-job here: viewers, who are being lied to, but who may or may not care; airline pilots, whose profession is unrealistically portrayed; or nervous flyers, whose fears this movie will only compound.

First things first: this isn’t a movie review. I’ll leave that to the professional critics. I’m not Anthony Lane, and any attempts I make at dissecting “Flight” on its deeper cinematic merits, if there are any, are bound to fall short. I’m more than happy, however, to judge the film on its technical aspects: its cockpit scenes and its portrayal of airline pilots. And what I saw gets a firm thumbs-down.

I went into the theater with an open mind. Really, I did. I long ago accepted that when it comes to planes and pilots, Hollywood never gets it right, and I was not expecting anything different this time. There’s a point, however, where you just can’t let things go. There is nothing funny about “Flight”, but should you hear howls of laughter coming from the back of the theater, chances are there’s a pilot in the audience. Laughter, if not tears, is the only fair response to much of what the movie shows.

Above all else there’s the matter of Denzel Washington’s character, “Whip” Whitaker. Whip is a hotshot, sauced-up captain whose substance-abuse habit crash-lands him, quite literally, into a whole heap of trouble. Our anti-Sully is a guy who flies on the heels of a coke binge and pours his own cocktails in the galley. Whip is a cartoon, but the problem is that too many people watching this movie will take him seriously. The idea that such a reckless pilot might actually exist out there is hardwired into the imagination of the traveling public and unfortunately reinforced by rare but high-profile reports of commercial pilots who’ve been caught while under the influence.

Any number of pilots have indeed battled substance-abuse problems — as have professionals in every line of work — and over the years a much smaller number have been arrested after failing a Breathalyzer or blood-alcohol test. Incidents like these have nurtured a certain apocryphal stereotype: the pilot as hard-drinking renegade, with crow’s-feet flanking his eyes and a whisky-tempered drawl, a flask tucked into his luggage. When the image is so quick to form, it’s tempting to jump to conclusions: for every pilot who’s caught, there must be a dozen others out there getting away with it. Right?

Well, quite frankly, no. Intoxication isn’t something pilots play fast and loose with. Why would we, with our careers on the line? Violators are subject to immediate revocation of their pilot certificates, not to mention potential prison time. I will remind you that pilots are subject to random drug and alcohol testing, and I should also note that simply because a pilot is battling a substance-abuse problem, that does not mean he is flying while drunk or high. And he certainly isn’t mixing drinks in the galley. That is a huge and critical distinction. Passengers worry about all sorts of things, rational and otherwise, but trust me on this one: there’s no Whip Whitaker in the cockpit.

Why not? The rest of us wouldn’t tolerate such a dangerous colleague in our midst, for one thing. Neither would any pilot take the skies with somebody he or she knew to be under the influence. At one point, Whitaker’s copilot admits from his post-crash hospital bed to having known that his captain was drunk and high even before they’d taken off. Where’s a bucket of tomatoes when you need one?

In other words, a real-life Whitaker wouldn’t survive two minutes at an airline, and all commercial pilots — including, if not especially, those who’ve dealt with drug or alcohol addiction — should feel slandered by his ugly caricature.

The Federal Aviation Administration blood-alcohol limit for airline pilots is 0.04 percent, and we are banned from consuming alcohol within eight hours of reporting for duty. We must also comply with our employers’ in-house policies, which are usually stricter. Drug and alcohol tests are unannounced and common. Air carriers and unions like the Air Line Pilots Association have been very successful with proactive counseling programs that encourage pilots to seek treatment.

Not long ago, I flew with a colleague who participated in the HIMS program, an intervention and treatment system put together several years ago by ALPA and the FAA. HIMS has treated more than 4,000 pilots, with only 10 percent to 12 percent of participants suffering relapse. It has kept alcohol out of the cockpit and has helped prevent the issue from being driven underground, where it’s more likely to be a safety problem. I asked that colleague if, prior to going into HIMS, he’d ever knowingly flown under the influence. His answer was a firm and very believable no.

But back to the movie…

The workplace dynamic between Whip Whitaker and his copilot, Ken Evans (Brian Geraghty), is another problem. In the cockpit, Whitaker is flip, arrogant, and condescending; Evans is meek and at times frightened and clueless. This is not how actual pilots behave and interact. Further, such a botched depiction only reinforces one of flying’s most irritating myths: the idea of the copilot as a sort of apprentice pilot who is on hand merely to help out and assist the captain.

Copilots are not trainees. I ought to know: I am one. We perform just as many takeoffs and landings as captains do, and we are fully certified to operate the aircraft in all phases of flight. In fact, due to the peculiarities of the seniority bidding that determines almost everything in a pilot’s professional life, it’s not terribly uncommon for the copilot to be older and more experienced than the captain sitting next to him.

The cockpit scenes otherwise range from borderline realistic to preposterous. The checklists, the procedural callouts, the chatter with air-traffic control, etc., are occasionally rendered correctly, if a bit over the top. But mostly they’re peculiar, and at times they are outright silly.

The early-on segment where Whitaker and Evans are battling through a storm is particularly egregious. I cannot begin to describe how wrong it is, from the absurd idea that you would actually increase to maximum flying speed to race between storm cells to Whitaker’s impetuous descent, which for some inexplicable reason he believes will help lead them safely through the weather — all without permission from air-traffic control. Are you kidding?

Minutes later we see the jet, its pitch controls jammed, nosediving unstoppably toward the ground. Whip saves the day by turning the plane upside down, then rolling it right side up again in time for a semi-successful crash landing in a field. The aerobatic magic here is something that escapes me, but what do I know? I’m just an airline pilot. The sequence is based loosely on the crash of Alaska Airlines flight 261 in January, 2000, when a jammed stabilizer jackscrew forced the McDonnell Douglas MD-83 into an unrecoverable dive. (Whitaker’s jet is a fictionalized version of the same plane, with some digitalized winglets attached.) The crew of Alaska 261 briefly attempted to regain control by flying inverted. Whatever aerobatic and aerodynamic possibilities exist here aren’t anything I can vouch for. If they do exist, surely “Flight” has overextended them.

I can let that one go, but I loved it when Whitaker, seconds away from impact, actually radios air-traffic control with the news: “We are in a dive!”

Thanks, Whip. I can only imagine a perplexed controller staring haplessly into a radar screen, not really sure what to say or do, wondering if perhaps he ought to have called in sick that day. In the real world, pilots in the throes of such an emergency wouldn’t be all that worried about what ATC has to say, and such a radio call would be about the last thing on their minds. For most of the film I was too mortified to actually laugh out loud, but that one got a cackle from me.

Presumably, the filmmakers worked with one or more consultants, who must have at least attempted to encourage accuracy. Wikipedia tells us that the late Lyle Shelton, a former stunt pilot, worked as a technical adviser. Perhaps Shelton could have told us more about that upside-down business, but he wasn’t an airline pilot, and it’s the cockpit details — the dramatization of airline SOP — where things fall short. I almost hate to say it, but even Airport ’75 — one of the quintessential air-disaster movies, in which Charlton Heston is helicoptered through a hole in a crippled 747 — did it better.

I’ll be told, perhaps, that I need to relax, and that the movie ought be judged beyond its technical shortcomings. Normally I would agree, and for the average lay viewer it will hardly matter at all. I’m happy to allow a little artistic license. We should expect it, and some light fudging of the facts can be necessary, to a degree, for a film like this to work. Honestly, I’m not that much of a fussbudget. The trouble with “Flight” is that the filmmakers seem to have hardly tried.

And why not? Would it really have been that difficult? Would it really have diminished the picture’s storyline or its gravity? I think not.

As for real-life substance-abuse problems, I prefer the tale of the former Northwest captain Lyle Prouse.

Prouse was one of three Northwest Airlines pilots arrested one morning in Minnesota in 1990. All three had spent the previous evening’s layover at a bar in Fargo, N.D., downing as many as 19 rum and Cokes. Tests showed their blood-alcohol levels far beyond the legal limit.

An alcoholic whose parents had died of the disease, Prouse became a poster pilot for punishment and redemption. He was sentenced to 16 months in federal prison. Then, in a remarkable and improbable sequence of events, he was able to return to the cockpit on his 60th birthday and retire as a 747 captain.

Once out of jail, Prouse was forced to requalify for every one of his FAA licenses and ratings. Broke, he relied on a friend to lend him stick time in a single-engine trainer. Northwest’s then-CEO, John Dasburg, who himself had grown up in an alcoholic family, took a personal interest in Prouse’s struggle and lobbied publicly for his return.

You’ll see Prouse in interviews from time to time, and inevitably you’ll be struck by how forthrightly he takes responsibility, without resorting to the sobby self-flagellation of most public apologies. Always one is left, unexpectedly, to conclude that this convicted felon deserved his second chance.


This article ran originally in The Daily Beast.


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20 Responses to “Pilots, Alcohol, Hollywood and Farce”
  1. Steve Van Swearingen says:

    Hey! Jimmy Stewart starting up the R2800 using the Coffman starter got it right in the original Flight of teh Phoenix

  2. Roger says:

    I work in IT and what you see related to that is far more of a stretch. I’m pretty sure people in almost any professional field will make the same observation.

    My work, as I suspect most of yours, is actually very long periods of quiet professionalism. It is the complete opposite of entertainment. Doing the various things shown are usually completely impossible, certainly impractical, and if done would take months or years.

    But of course people want to be entertained, they want to be frightened, they want frequent progress to be made, they want the complete opposite of how things actually are. And the entertainment industry delivers!

    But Pushing Tin was a documentary right :-)

  3. Beauzeaux says:

    I used to work in the New York City subways and every movie that touches on the trains gets it wrong, wrong, wrong. (The original “Taking of Pelham 1-2-3″ actually got a few things right — making it the exception that proves the rule.)

    I’m convinced that movies never get anyone’s job right. Does anyone believe that cops/lawyers/doctors/any other profession act like they do in movies? In IT now and Roger is right. Computers in the movies are AMAZING! If only real computers were that easy and fast!

  4. Tod says:

    I can handle movies getting it wrong with flying but a lot of so called documentaries are just as bad if not worse.

  5. Stacy says:

    If Hollywood made movies that were realistic, nobody would ever go. One of the American embassy staff in Teheran who escaped to the Canadian embassy went to see the movie “Argo” and said it wasn’t anything like real-life (they got out without a hitch), but the movie was very suspenseful and exciting: “I was on the edge of my seat wondering if we made it out.” I’m a lawyer and if they made a movie that depicted an actual trial, not a soul would make it out awake.

  6. Jeff Latten says:

    It appears that once again, the movie makers have assumed that the movie-going public are a bunch of morons and they might have a point there. To me, a good story is a good story and doesn’t need ridiculous violations of reality to make it gripping. By the same logic, putting in such absurd details just points to the lack of a good story. Example of a great movie with a story with few stretches: “A Simple Plan” with Bill Paxton. So I guess the movie moguls just figure that Denzel is enough and the story can be a implausible as they can make it. And I have to agree with your assessment that this will probably scare the snot out of many travelers.

  7. flymike says:

    Denzel is going for the hat trick: train wreck engineer movie first, then drunken airplane pilot, then . . . ship captain who puts his huge new cruise ship on the rocks? Oh wait, that’s already been done in real life. Still, someone will make a movie about it.

    • Chuck W says:

      The railroading in Unbearable err Unstoppable were almost as believable as the aviation in Flight. Denzel has been in some really good movies (the Equalizer is very good) but these two are definitely not.

  8. Tom says:

    As a former pilot (minimal hours) I find it interesting to read these comments…… and Patrick’s critique…… and agree with it all. Only question for Patrick and other airline guys….. how do you go from a stuck elevator that has you in a dive and then invert the plane and fly level?? These big planes don’t fly very well inverted with or without jammed controls. That part of the story is beyond a stretch….. did I miss something at the NTSB hearing at the end of the movie?

  9. Ross Aimer says:

    I went to see “Flight” all prepared to be disappointed. The flying parts were awful as I expected but I thought Denzel’s acting and the story of drug and alcohol addiction was great.
    I’ve done a few aviation movies as a T/A (Technical Assistant) to the Director. They paid me good money but rarely listened to my critique.
    Average folks have no idea about intricacies of aviation. Movie makers want to make things exciting and sell their movies. They really don’t care if you and I and a few pilots in the theater get upset when we see something that is technically impossible or totally unrealistic.
    The funny thing is that the average movie goer is now convinced we do our best flying after a night of wild sex, drugs and alcohol binging. I just wished some of that were true! :-)

  10. Elizabeth Matheson says:

    Realistic or not, this is a hard film to watch and not because of the subject matter. It’s an exercise in futility, especially because we all know how it’s going to end up. After an interesting, if not plausible beginning, the story slows to a crawl with scene after scene of pointless exposition, trying to paint Whip as a well-meaning guy who “just has a problem.” His problem IS the problem, giving audiences no one to root for or even in any way identify with. It feels like an after-school special, complete with “the more you know” lessons learned just in case it wasn’t obvious “that alcohol can be bad” after 138 minutes.

  11. Brett says:

    A quick google search tells you that pilots in the USA have regular random drug tests. A pilot like the one in Flight would find it hard to exist under such a testing regime.

    This is just another Hollywood movie where the movie machine insults the intelligence of the viewer. Pathetic

  12. Scott Hawthorn says:

    I finally saw this movie. I’m not a pilot but I know a few things. I almost hit ‘stop’ right when they were climbing out, the airspeed indicator read something like 360 KNOTS, fer crissakes, and the first officer was screaming, “OVERSPEED!” Hee hee, possibly the most fictional depiction ever! Whatever happened to expert consultants on movies?

  13. Lewis Van Atta says:

    I was trained as an electrical engineer (I do software engineering nowdays), and did some work on military aircraft and the Gulfstream 5 bizjet (Bruce Wayne’s jet in Batman Begins!). One that that ALWAYS bugs me is that hardly anyone in Hollyweird gets engineering or technical items correct in a typical movie…and it would not take much effort to do their homework and get it right.

    The one notable exception I can think of is Stanley Kubrick and 2001: A Space Odyssey. In the late 60s he showed spacecraft with glass cockpits. Of course, Kubrick was famous for being meticulously detailed like this in his movies.

  14. JohnLM says:

    I’ll admit the first time around watching Flight the opening scene did keep me entertained with its absurd over-the-topness, but the entertainment stopped as soon as the plane came to rest. What followed was a cacophony of all the worst movie cliches rolled into one film. Troubled anti-hero gets rescued by drug-addled cutie while he kicks and screams the whole way. I can only imagine the writer sitting in front of his computer when all of a sudden it hits him! “The most epic plane crash sequence with a drunk pilot who saves the day! And then….and then….hmmmm…let’s see…oh and he has a funny friend…like the Dude….only more hardcore…oh man wouldn’t it be cool if we got Walter to play the Dude character?! Then we’ll put In a Manic Pixie Dream Girl..duh. Ok there’s the first three pages.. Now I just need to fill it out!”

    I’m perfectly fine with over the top stupidity in film but if it starts out as Michael Bay I want it to finish like Michael Bay, rather then start dumb and end Robert Zemeckis folksy. There isn’t a profession on earth that escapes Hollywoods sticky grasp so I don’t feel like pilots need to be given special deference when it comes to realistic writing. If that were the case then cops would have the biggest axe to grind. Still after repeated watching that scene starts to fall apart only because it can no longer be viewed in it’s own absurd context; you know the rest of the sap barrel is tumbling down after it.

    If we are talking about plane crashes done right I believe The Grey probably takes the prize. The cause is ambiguous but seems to be some sort of electrical failure (although I don’t know why that would lead to the plane breaking open) and the director crafts the setup perfectly. When the crash plays out it starts slow and then in an instant the plane blows out with a Gaussian blurred view of the ground below and staccato bursts of consciousness before blackout. I don’t know if that’s what it’s really like but it seems plausible.

  15. susan says:

    good piece. I think a good corollary is the TV series “House”–about a Vicodin-addicted doctor who ends up being the hero in every episode, figuring out what strange and obscure ailment has felled this week’s victim. AS IF. I work in a medium sized city hospital ER. I can assure you that NO hospital would allow someone with this issue to touch a patient. seriously.

    • Mark says:

      With regards to “House” I could never stop thinking about the massive medical bills that House and his colleagues must have racked up for each of their patients. They’re alive, but utterly broke !

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