Is Denzel’s Upside-Down Flying Trick Plausible?

When it comes to accuracy, Flight lost me at the walkaround

Paramount Pictures

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: