November 12, 2012

"Flight" The Movie - A Word To The Wise

I have conflicting emotions after seeing the movie Flight.  I enjoy movies with an aviation theme, even though the consultants hired to make sure they reflect reality are either idiots, readily ignored or both.  Along the same vein, I have two brothers-in-law who are attorneys and neither one can stand to watch a single episode of Law and Order without stomping out of the room in disgust.  But Flight really isn't a movie about's a movie about addiction.

On a light note, I sincerely wish my MD80 had those sexy winglets.  As you are probably aware, there are a few inconsistencies in this and just about any other movie about aviation...MD80s do not have winglets.  I've often said winglets are for wimps,  but that's only because I don't have them.  And yes, in case you are wondering, an MD80 could fly upside down, but not for an extended time.  Without fuel and oil systems designed for inverted flight, the engines would either burn up or flameout in short order.

As much as I was hoping this would be a movie about the airlines, it is actually a story about a man's battle with substance abuse.  The movie was often hard to watch and I found myself shifting uncomfortably in my seat on a number of occasions.  I can honestly say that I have never witnessed, suspected or even heard rumors of a pilot engaging in the level of substance abuse depicted in the movie.  But pilots are human.  And if a given percentage of the general population deals with substance abuse, then it only stands to reason that a percentage of pilots deal with it as well.

The union who represents me has lambasted the movie for its portrayal of a pilot engaging in "criminal" activities.  But again, pilots are only human and are susceptible to the same pressures and temptations experienced by every other member of society. They are not immune to criminal behavior and they are not immune to issues of addiction, so I don't have issue with this aspect of the concern is with something else.  I suspect there will be an increasing trend of passengers asking pilots if they've been drinking on the job and I would like to make it very clear that accusing a pilot of being under the influence, joking or not, is no different than joking about a bomb at airport security.  It is an accusation that will be taken seriously.

I don't necessarily think this applies to people interested enough in aviation to be reading my blog, but I strongly suspect most people have no idea what pilots do day in and day out.  I start my job the night before a trip by getting a good night's rest, because a tired, fatigued or sleep deprived pilot is no better than one who has been drinking.  After arriving at the airport, I spend about an hour researching weather along the route, reading any Notice to Airmen pertaining to the facilities I plan to use, researching the maintenance history of the aircraft and checking the accuracy and legality of the flight plan prepared for my flight by company dispatch.  By the time you see me walking onto the jet bridge, I'm already well prepared.

I am often asked if there is anything left for a pilot to do in the cockpit.  (Picture my frown and furrowed brow.)  You know, with all the computers and everything, pilots just sit there and watch...right?

Have you heard?  New jet aircraft will be crewed by one pilot and a dog. 
The pilot is there to feed the dog...and the dog is there to bite the pilot if he touches anything.  

Even on the most automated aircraft, pilots still play a roll that cannot be replaced.  Many of us still hand fly everything but cruise flight because we enjoy it...and no one allows the jet to land itself unless the weather dictates otherwise.  Even with the autopilot engaged, we are there to intervene when things don't work properly and we're there to make decisions that no computer, no matter how good, can make without the sights, smells, sensations and experience of a professional pilot.  

If you're a regular follower of my ramblings, then you know I have a good sense of humor and that I've always found a healthy dose of self deprecating humor to be good for the soul.  But I can only take so much and I see no humor in being accused of flying while under the influence of anything.

People innocently poke their head into the cockpit as they board and ask some of the most ridiculous things I've ever heard.  Here are the three most common questions.  First, do you really know what all those buttons do?  This is an honest and harmless question and the answer is yes.  I know what all the switches do.  I also know how they interact with each other, how they are powered in case there's an electrical power interruption during flight and I know what happens and what to do if they don't work as designed.

The second question I hear the most is...did you get enough sleep last night?  This is also an honest and harmless question, but I usually lie and tell people that I'm perfectly fresh and rested.  The truth may be that I spent eight hours behind the door of a crappy hotel on a noisy street with some crazy couple having sex all night in the room next door.  The truth may be that I've already been on duty for 12 hours, worked four or five flights dodging thunderstorms all day, and that the FAA says I'm legal for up to 16 hours at the controls...but I don't think people want the truth and I'd probably get fired for giving it to them.

"You can't handle the truth!"

The third most common question I hear from passengers is playfully related to my sobriety.  The answer of course is that I haven't had a drink in at least 8 hours.  "Eight hours bottle to throttle."  That's the law.  For me personally, the answer is that I haven't had a drink in at least 12, but that's just my personal rule.  Many airlines and individual pilots agree with me on this and have policies that are at least as restrictive as mine.

It is a criminal offence for a pilot to arrive at the airport with the intention of working a flight while under the influence of alcohol or any other drug.  He can and will be arrested even if he never sets foot on the actual airplane.  Flight  puts all this in the public eye.  And while the movie is intended as entertainment, it will no doubt generate negative attitudes and comments from passengers.

These comments, made in poor taste and judgement, will receive varied responses from flight crews.  The response will depend on the crew member and his or her perceived seriousness of the accusation.  One pilot may elect to ignore the comment altogether.  Honestly, I've done this many times.  "See no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil."  Only once in my career have I interpreted such a comment as a true accusation.  In this case, the flight was delayed over an hour as I insisted on a drug and alcohol test before I would continue with my duties.  For the record, I hadn't had a drink in days.

The legal limit for pilots in the U.S. is .04% blood alcohol, half the .08% allowed in most states to manipulate the controls of an automobile.  I set my personal rule at 12 hours because there have been reports of pilots consuming high alcohol content drinks well outside the 8 hour window and still testing above the limit at duty time.  I want and you deserve the extra cushion.

So go ahead and enjoy the movie.  I know I did.  It is a raw and dirty look at the ugly and often secret life of those struggling with substance abuse.  But understand that it's just a movie and don't even consider accusing a pilot of being under the influence of alcohol unless you have good reason for suspicion.


  1. My husband does 12 hours too.

    The best aviation gaffe, that I ever caught onto, was in "Catch me if you can" when they were landing on runway 42 (or something like that). That was when my husband gave me the rundown on how runways are labeled. That error just seems ridiculous.

  2. Thanks for a balanced piece, I haven't heard of the movie "Flight" but will no doubt try to watch with an open mind....

    I'm in the betting industry in the UK and my wife is family lawyer, if you had a pound for every time we swear at the tv when a related item comes on you'd be a very rich man!

    I wonder how I would feel if Joe Public wandered into my office and asked if I had been drinking...

    Great blog by the way...

    Dave from the UK

  3. Thanks for the accurate answer to the issue of can an airliner fly upside down. A fuller answer would point out that upside down involves a reversal of g's. Normally one g down becomes one g up. Since wind gusts and rarely used control authority can result in more than one g up, design limits must and do include this. So the airframe can withstand that condition.

    The issue of lift. Lift is a function of angle of attack. Very fast fighters have been designed with very thin wings, almost like model airplanes with the Thin sheet of balsa wood for a wing. So yes, you can achieve lift upside down, just present the wing to the relative wind with the right angle of attack.

    So what is the problem? As pointed out, it is fluids. The fuel and oil systems are designed for positive g's. For a short while, you can fly with the fuel and oil in the supply lines, but not for long. Then you will loose power. Airliners without power fly like a rock. At least figuratively. The important point is at that point the only direction you can fly is down.

    1. Impact lift is not something pilots generally learn and most rely on the incorrect notion that the small force of bernoulli lift is how a wing works enroute. Noseboom angle of attack to be exact, so some fool doesn't confuse AOA for angle of airflow.

  4. And now for the proof. Twice I have seen this, both with Boeing aircraft. In Hilo, Hawaii, probably 1961, they were using the mostly empty runway for pilot checkouts. That morning we watched a sequence of touch an goes, a signature of a empty check flight. On the last touch and go, the pilot did a "victory roll" on the climb out. A beautiful thing to see. If done with skill, you can keep positive g's throughout the roll, and I assume he did.

    On the second, they were not so skillful. During a check flight before delivery out of the Boeing factory in the 70's, the pilot rolled the plane. The problem was that that was not on the "Card" and the plane was not prepared for it. Of most note, the toilets were not secured. The stink spread in the cabin area did not win popularity votes with the factory work crew that had to clean it up. So if you chose to try it, one, be sure the ground crew secures everything in the cabin, and two, learn to do "barrel rolls" so the cork screw flight path generates positive g'a all around. Aileron rolls just aren't a good idea.

  5. The author might want to look into Aero Mexico if he wishes to see an historic example of substance abuse by piolts. Considering the fact that our ALPA president/FAA Administrator was arrested drunk driving on the srong side of a Virginia road only one year ago, it might be best to consider our own glass house.

  6. I guess you have not heard about the BA pilot (while off duty) inappropriately touched and tried to fornicate with a female passenger all this while she is seated next to her husband.

    The pilot was suspended before and faces suspension again. So, yes it does happen. We have heard of many Southwest pilots being drunk.

  7. This is an interesting movie for me, I guess. The Airline Attorney's character is quite good too.