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Real Vs. Reel Pilots

Dissecting the 2012 Hollywood movie, Flight, Captain Lim Khoy Hing separates fact from fiction.

An Unrealistic Portrayal of Airline Pilots

The recent Hollywood movie Flight featuring Denzel Washington has been both critically acclaimed and well received. Quite a few readers wrote in with questions about the film, so I too was compelled to watch it. Flight is indeed a highly entertaining action flick. However, its portrayal of an airline pilot is unrealistic. As such, I feel a need to discuss this movie to relieve any anxieties that guests may have. 

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     Flight is a story about a pilot who crash-lands his plane with 102 passengers on board. He saves the majority of the passengers and is hailed as a hero, but comes under the scrutiny of the Air Safety Board when tests reveal heavy usage of alcohol and drugs.

     Academy Award winning actor Denzel Washington plays the role of the pilot to perfection and this movie is definitely worth watching, so I shall not reveal the ending. However, I will discuss a few aspects of the plot in order to explain how it differs from real life.

Detecting Infidelity

Apparently in the uncensored version of Flight, the movie opens with the captain in a bedroom scene with a rather naked flight attendant.

     Scenes like this reinforce the public perception that flight crew are promiscuous. Readers frequently ask me if it is possible for airline pilots to have successful marriages, especially when travelling to exotic destinations with good looking cabin crews.

     Well, pilots are human beings, just like anyone else. Some are loyal and some are unfaithful. Some have excellent and lasting marriages whilst others have less successful ones.

     Admittedly, there are more opportunities to stray in this profession as there’s no need to lie about ‘working late’, or explain the whiff of women’s perfume on the uniform. Flying around the world with pretty flight attendants is all part of the job! 

     Wives of pilots have asked about signs of unfaithfulness. Far from being a marriage counsellor, I can only relay general observations about such issues in the aviation industry.

     A straying spouse may become more vain or play hide-and-seek with his partner. An unfaithful husband may suddenly turn into a big spender or, a master at arranging his schedule. Sometimes, he may seem edgy on the phone or inadequate in bed! 

     Please do not take my words above as gospel truth as I am not a relationship expert. If you suspect unfaithfulness, it would be advisable to approach a marriage counsellor and not use the anecdotes in this magazine to prove infidelity.

Investigating Intoxication

In my previous article, Staying Sober for Safety (Apr 2011), I wrote about how stringent the rules are with regards to alcohol consumption by airline pilots. As such, the depiction of an alcoholic captain sniffing oxygen in a cockpit prior to his flight may lead some to wonder if this actually happens.

     Due to the scheduling system that rosters flight crew for the scores of flights an  airline operates around the world, it is rare for a captain and co-pilot to know each other very well. There are times where the two have never even met prior to the actual flight. How then can they hope to cooperate and cope well, especially in emergencies? This comes down to flight trainers who ensure that strict Standard Operating Procedures (SOP) are adhered to at all times. Even standard phraseology for challenges and responses must be used strictly to avoid confusion. 

     I often use the term copilot, but a more appropriate phrase would be ‘first officer’ as he or she is second in command in case the captain is incapacitated. The first officer is therefore trained to handle the aircraft safely in any eventually, especially when the pilot-in command is not in a condition to fly safely. (see Saying No to your Boss, Jan 2013). 

     To begin with, pre-flight briefing reminds pilots to review threats and error management so that their flight will progress safely. Today, a first officer is well-trained to make a report directly or anonymously when he or she feels a captain has compromised the safety of the aircraft and its passengers. Smelling of alcohol would definitely be a red flag.

     As such, a chronic drinker like the captain in Flight would not last long in his career. Even if there are a few co-pilots who decide not to report him, there’ll be others who won’t be so ‘helpful’.

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A cautious captain will normally not fly into a raging storm. Instead, he would wait for the rain to subside first before taking off.

Peculiar Decisions & Strange Behavior

In the movie, the captain takes off in heavy rain. This is not a normal practice. A cautious captain would wait for the rain to stop or at least become a light drizzle. There are many hazards that come with torrential rain such as reduced visibility or running off the runway in the event of an aborted takeoff.

     In an attempt to avoid severe turbulence in a thunderstorm, the captain in the movie increases the speed to the maximum limit. While this probably added drama, it is contrary to real world operating procedures. In such an event, a pilot would reduce speed just like how you would slow down when driving over potholes. Structurally, a plane is not designed to fly at high speeds in turbulence. 

     In the movie, the captain is seen to be arrogant and condescending; the first officer is meek and at times, frightened and clueless. This is not how an actual pilot would behave, and only reinforces the myth that the co-pilot is an apprentice who merely assists the captain. In reality, a co-pilot is a well-trained first officer who is assertive and competent.

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Flying Inverted

Even though stoned out of his mind, the captain in Flight skilfully manoeuvres his plane in an uncontrolled dive and puts his plane in an unorthodox flight procedure to save the day. This led one reader to ask if a commercial airliner can actually fly inverted or upside down. 

     Yes, it is possible to fly inverted momentarily in certain planes but not on a modern airliner as there are mechanisms that protect it against such a manoeuvre in a normal flight. 

     On the Airbus, it is not possible to bank beyond 67 degrees left or right and so it is impossible to bring the plane into an inverted position. However, when a plane is not in ‘normal law’ (usually after some technical failure) the normal bank protection is lost. It is then possible to invert a commercial plane temporarily. To date, no pilot has ever done so intentionally in an actual commercial flight – except in a simulator and once in a demonstration flight on a Boeing 707!

Real Life and Movies

The heroic protagonist in the movie saves a diving plane by turning it upside down, and then rolling it right side up again in time for a fairly successful crash landing in a field. 

     Even the most experienced and competent (and sober) pilot might find such a manoeuvre next to impossible to execute safely. However, movies have a way of exercising ‘creative license’. Real life sometimes isn’t interesting enough to draw audiences to the movies in the way that creative plots and suspenseful storytelling can.

     My intention in this article is not to review the movie, as it has a very riveting and suspenseful plot that has allowed me an opportunity to discuss flying related topics. I only want to dispel flying myths and allay fears that some movie-goers may have after watching this movie. Even the most hardened air travellers may start to worry about the flight crew and their state of mind. 

     With that, I hope that I have managed to ease those fears and make flying a more calming experience for any guests currently in flight.

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Captain Lim Khoy Hing is a former AirAsia Airbus A320 and AirAsia X A330/A340 pilot who also used to fly the Boeing 777. He has logged a total of more than 25,500 flying hours and is now a Simulator Flight Instructor with Air Asia X. In his spare time, he shares his opinion on aviation issues with others. For more air travel and aviation stories, check out his website, ‘Just About Flying’ at www.askcaptainlim.com.

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