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The Folly of Flight

August 14, 2014

Recently, I had the opportunity to engage in a brief email exchange with first pilot Patrick Smith of and author of Cockpit Confidentials which you can purchase to the right of this article. Mr. Smith shared with me his frustrations as a first officer with the way Hollywood depicted the relationship between the captain potrayed by Denzel Washington in the movie Flight ahd his first officer. I did understand intellectually that in this modern era a  flight crew is made up of employees who are on equal footing with each other. Captains dont boss first officers around and it hasnt been that way since the 1960s where airlines like Pan-Am used to hire military personnel. Since the 1970s a first officer can most certainly question the decision of the captain as they are coworkers and are trained to work as a team. But I still didnt get why Mr. Smith seemed a bit edgy about the Hollywood depiction and so I decided to research the airplane crash of United Flight 232 in 1989 and then when I watched the movie Flight again, thats when I got it and saw how absurd the crash scene is and I could, for the first time, really see things through the eyes of a first officer like Patrick Smith.

As you can see in the scene above, the first officer keeps referring to “Whip” as “sir”, this is not how pilots relate to each other. Unless, the captain is a really old man, I got the sense from Mr. Smith that pilots just refer to each other by their first names. Also, how did “Whip” come to the conclusion that they lost hydraulics? Also, as someone who has worked in the airlines post-9/11 it was my understanding that the flight attendants do not just hang out in the cockpit during flight. You see Denzel just barking orders at his first pilot, to shut off an engine, put out a fire, etc. This is not how it works in the airline business. Lets take a look at a real airline crash that is similar to what supposedly happened to “Southjet 227” in the movie Flight.

In 1989 United Airline Flight 232 was on its way to Chicago when there was a loud bang like an explosion. It was so loud, a couple of passengers thought it was a bomb. Flight 232 slewed hard to the right. It shuddered and shook violently and almost immediately climbed three hundred feet, as the tail dropped sharply.

So this is what happened next, keep in mind that the airplane in the movie Flight seems to be a McDonnell-Douglas MD-80, according to First Pilot Patrick Smith, author of Cockpit Confidential. In the real life crash of United Flight 232, the type of aircraft was a McDonnell-Douglass DC-10 which still required the use of a third crew member in the cockpit and that was the engineer. Dudley Dvorak was the name of the engineer on Flight 232 and after the explosion that was heard he radioed the Minneapolis Air Route Traffic Control Center in Farmington, Minnesota, saying, “We just lost number two engine, like to lower our altitude, please.”

While the First Officer, William Roy Records struggled with the controls, Captain Alfred Clair Haynes called for the checklist for shutting down the failed engine. Did you get that? The captain cant just say okay you shut down the failed engine, no he must call for a checklist to shut down the failed engine, in other words teamwork. Haynes asked Dvorak to read the checklist to him. The first item on the list said to close the throttle, but “this throttle would not go back,” Haynes said later. “That was the first indication that we had something more than a simple engine failure.” The second item on the list said to turn off the fuel supply to that engine. “The fuel lever would not move. It was binding.” Haynes realized that the number two engine, the one that was mounted through the tail, must have suffered some sort of physical damage. The crew as yet had no idea what happened, but Haynes felt a deep wave of concern surge through him. He knew that he was facing something far more serious than the loss of power to an engine. Events unfolded at lightning speed. Only a minute or so had elapsed since the explosion when Records said, “Al, I cant control the airplane.” Did you notice that? He called him “Al”, not “sir” like the actor playing the first officer in the movie Flight.

The DC-10 had stopped its climb and had begun descending and rolling to the right. Records was using the control wheel to try to steer, but the aircraft wasn’t responding. He was commanding the aircraft to turn left and to bring its nose up. The aircraft was doing the exact opposite. Haynes saw this dissonant image. It didn’t take a pilot to know that something was dreadfully wrong.

In the movie Flight they show “Whip” played by Denzel keeping his emotions under control and his first officer doing the exact opposite. In a real crash such as United Flight 232, all crew members were scared and in fact, First Officer Records later recalled the startled look on Captain Haynes’s face: “I think the picture was worth a thousand words when he looked over at me and saw what was going on.”

As the plane continued its roll, Haynes said, “I’ve got it,” taking hold of his own control wheel. Both Records and Haynes now struggled with the failing steering, while Dvorak watched his instrument panel. Something bizarre was happening. The gauges were showing the pressure and quantity of hydraulic fluid falling lower and lower. So did we catch anywhere in the Flight movie where Denzel saw pressure and quantity of hydraulic fluid falling for him to make the statement that they lost hydraulics?

Captain Haynes explains, “As the aircraft reached about 38 degrees of bank on its way toward rolling over on its back, we slammed the number one [left] throttle closed and firewalled the number three [right] throttle.”

Dudley Dvorak recalled the moment: “I looked forward, and we’re rolling to the right. I just said, ‘We’re rolling!’ And Al, in one quick movement, took his right hand off the yoke and swatted the number one engine back, and on the way back up, pushed the other engine up and was back on the yoke in just a matter of seconds.”

This is where the heroics that you see in the movie Flight actually take place in this real crash with Flight 232, where Captain Haynes did take it upon himself as a reflex reaction more than bravado, to steer the plane with the throttles, the crippled DC-10 would have rolled all the way over and spiraled into the ground, killing all on board. After a few agonizing seconds, “the right wing slowly came back up,” Haynes said. He had no idea what made him use the throttles. Nothing in his training would have suggested it. The DC-10 manual does briefly mention “the use of asymmetric thrust,” but Haynes had no memory of having read that entry. He responded automatically, as a reflex that has remained a mystery to him ever since that day. Now as Dvorak watched his instruments, he was horrified to see the pressure and quantity of fluid in all three hydraulic systems fall to zero.

I will leave you with the rest of the story from Captain Haynes himself below.



From → History, Life, Survivalism

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