Wednesday, April 27, 2005

Bad Airplane Movies

From the early days of aviation, Hollywood has been fairly enamored with flying. This has resulted in some really good movies like Twelve O'Clock High, but the majority of them have been stinkers. You'd think they'd be able to get it right: many movie stars, writers, directors, and producers are pilots, and aviation consultants are a dime a dozen. I think a lot of pilots would consult for free, just to have the satisfaction of seeing a movie that gets it right. Still, bad airplane movies are like bad kung-fu movies: they can be entertaining by their very badness.

Last weekend I watched "Turbulence" on TNT, not realizing what it was when I first started watching. But then I started laughing, and I couldn't turn it off. It's not a comedy, it's just so bad there's nothing you can do but laugh. It involves a serial killer hijacking a 747 with the intention of crashing it into the detective who arrested him (yes, this was pre-9/11). Standing in his way is a flight attendant who outwits him and locks herself in the cockpit, where ATC and a 747 try to talk her down. After standing aghast at all the travesties in the plotline - the autopilot executes a perfect slow-roll as the FA struggles with the serial killer - you can't help but giggle when they work in a somewhat accurate depiction of programming the 747 FMS for arrival.

Some of the quotes are priceless. At one point ATC is trying to convince Teri (the FA) to change the airplane's heading to avoid bad weather, advising her that "you've got a level six storm." "Is that a six on a scale from one to 10?" she asks. "No, Teri...on a scale of one to six!"

Of course, flight attendants landing airplanes were a staple of the 1970's disaster movies, which were pretty uniformly bad. The Airport series got worse and worse with each subsequent release, although it did provide lots of great material for Airplane! to spoof.

Bad aviation movies often center on the military rather than the airlines. 1957's Jet Pilot, starring John Wayne and Janet Leigh, had some great flight footage but was sunk by a thin plot, ludicrous dialogue, and horrible acting. Of course, everybody has seen Top Gun, a film featuring great footage of F-14's strutting their stuff and not-so-great footage of Tom Cruise strutting his. Oh yeah, the flat spin that killed Goose? Totally implausible, the F-14's engines are close enough to centerline that compressor stall/flameout on one would not induce enough vertical instability to send it into a flat spin. However, when you see the world spinning around from Mav's point of view, that's an actual flat spin performed by aerobatic champ Art Scholl. He never recovered from it, and was killed in the crash.

But the all-time Super Silver Screen Stinker award has to go to Iron Eagle. You know, where the teenage Cessna pilot steals an F-16 to go save his dad. Yeah. I don't even know where to begin, it's so horrible and implausible throughout. A great movie for parties with lots of pilots present, you can all throw popcorn at the screen. My favorite scene has to be when he's racing the dirtbike through the canyon in his C150....with the flaps full down! I laugh myself silly every time I see it.


Yellowbird said...

General agreement on the films, but I belive that the flat spin in Top Gun may have been based on an actual incident. I'll have to dig up the reference, but I remember reading about it several years ago.

Yellowbird said...

For what it's worth, I did some reading and Googling and found references sufficient to give the Top Gun flat spin episode some plausibility. In particular, a test was conducted in 1977 in an attempt to find a remedy for the compressor stalls taht had been nagging the TF30 engine. One engine stalled as intended according to the test plan, but the full power on the other engine caused a violent yaw leading to an unrecoverable flat spin. The crew ejected, but the back seater did not survive. I don't know if he hit the canopy, but careful Googlng will turn up a number of refernces to this possibility, as well as more details on the compressor stall/flat spin problems.

Traytable said...

I once read on a movie site that Goose wouldn't have died in real life as the seat is designed to protect the pilot's head in case they hit the canopy... not sure if that's true or not though...

CapricornCringe said...

Putting aside the fact that I'm neither a pilot nor a man (who might be interested in such things due to gender) .. I LOVED Iron Eagle. When the kid (forgot his name)turns on the music and flies the plane home .. it gets me every time. I can't hear that Steve Winwood song without thinking of the movie.
I enjoy your blog, found it by happy accident :)