“Brace For Impact!” Flight and the Reality of Different Dangers
Part I “May Day”
11 years ago, a movie that is now popular on Netflix was released which I wouldn’t recommend if you are acrophobic!
Flight (2012) stars Denzel Washington as Whip Whitaker, a wayward pilot who saves the day. One morning he wakes up in an Orlando hotel, hungover, with stewardess Katerina Marquez (Nadine Velazquez) beside him. He snorts a line of cocaine and then goes to work. Captain Whitaker and First Officer Ken Evans (Brian Geraghty) pilot South Jet Flight 227 to Atlanta, Georgia. After some initial (severe) turbulence, the plane levels out and things return to normal. That is…until…
The crew is about to descend when the throttle levers slam forward. The cabin jerks and the stewardess bringing drinks through the aisle loses her balance. Whitaker wakes up (he’d been napping while the plane cruised). Both he and Evans attempt to rectify the issue. While doing so, though, the elevator stiffens, the hydraulics are lost, and the plane pitches forward. The head stewardess, Margaret Thomason (Tamara Tunie), urges everyone to strap in. The dial on the Altitude Indicator rapidly spins counterclockwise. Whitaker, in correspondence with Air Traffic Control, realizes the horrifying truth: “We are in an uncontrolled dive!”
Whitaker commands Evans to “throw out everything…gears, speed breaks…everything.” Evans begins to lose his composure. Thomason orders the passengers to “assume brace position.” Whitaker declares a state of “emergency” to ground control, and the pilots dump the fuel. Everyone panics…screaming, crying, and fearing the inevitable! Everyone…except Whitaker, that is. As the clouds part, tiny houses and treetops come into view. Whitaker then realizes that there’s only one way to prevent an out-of-control dive—they must roll the plane (turning it upside down). Evans is initially incredulous, but he and Whitaker (with Thomason’s help) do just that. Overhead compartments pop open and luggage tumbles out. One stewardess’s foot gets caught, and another stewardess flings into the side of the cabin. Her head slams against it- killing her instantly. As they unroll the plane, one passenger vomits. The pilots dump the fuel. The noise dissipates and the aircraft begins to “glide.”
The plane then cruises over an empty field (no airport could be reached in time). One of the wings severs a church steeple. “Brace…brace for impact!” Whitaker alerts everyone. The shot zooms in on the earth and then on Whitaker. His entire body flings backwards. A sustained beeping goes off and the shot bleeds hot white. We then see the carnage from his perspective: dark plumes billow out, ambulances and sirens appear, white-robed acolytes from the church assist people, and Thomason crouches over one of her dead stewardesses, wracked with grief. An EMT shines a light in Whitaker’s eyes. In the end, Whitaker saves 96 out of 102 people on board!
A plane crash—what a terrifying prospect! Despite its extreme unlikeliness (1 in 3.37 billion odds, according to one source), many people are terrified to fly! The thought of being trapped in an enclosed space, rocketing towards the earth with no escape, is enough to give anyone nightmares! Ironically, car accidents occur far more frequently (but many people will tell you that being in the driver’s seat or being able to pull off to the side in case of an emergency is what makes all the difference).
Despite their rarity, plane crashes do certainly occur (and not just because of terrorism). On May 25, 1979, American Airlines Flight 191- a McDonnell Douglas DC-10- crashed upon takeoff from O’Hare International Airport. The left engine detached from the wing, and all 271 people on board were killed (as well as two people on the ground). It was the deadliest single-aircraft accident to occur on U.S. soil.1,2,3.
On November 12, 2001, American Airlines Flight 587- an Airbus A300- crashed into a Queens (New York City) neighborhood after the plane’s vertical tail fin snapped off during takeoff. The first officer overused the rudder during a wake turbulence encounter, causing the malfunction. All 251 passengers, 9 crew members, and 5 people on the ground were killed. Given its timing and location, everyone immediately assumed it was another terrorist attack.4
Then there was the plane crash that directly inspired Flight. On January 31, 2000, Alaska Airlines Flight 261- a McDonnell Douglas MD-83 plane- crashed into the Pacific Ocean roughly 2.7 miles (4.3 km) north of Anacapa Island, California.
The plane departed Puerto Vallarta’s Licenciado Gustavo Diaz Ordaz International Airport at 1:37 P.M. (Pacific Standard Time) and climbed to a cruising altitude of 31,000 feet (9,400 meters). The flight was scheduled to land at San Francisco International Airport (SFO) and then transfer to Seattle. At around 3:49 P.M. the flight crew contacted the airline’s dispatch and maintenance control at SeaTac (Seattle). The pilots were in correspondence with Los Angeles Airport (LAX). Due to a jammed horizontal stabilizer, they needed to divert to LAX. The jammed stabilizer affects the plane’s trim system (which the crew uses to make slight adjustments and keep the plane horizontally stable).5.
At 4:09 P.M. the flight crew successfully unjammed the stuck horizontal stabilizer (using its primary trim system). However, the airliner then suddenly did a nose-dive from around 31,500 feet to 23,000 feet in 80 seconds.5 The two struggling pilots pulled with 130-140 pounds of force and restabilized the plane. The flight crew contacted Air Traffic Control and alerted them that their situation was imminent, and they needed to perform an emergency landing at LAX.
At 4:19 P.M., the CVR recorded the sounds of at least 4 distinct “thumps”5. 17 seconds of “extremely loud noise” followed, and the overstrained jackscrew assembly completely failed, separating from the acme nut- destroying the horizontal stabilizer5. The aircraft pitched nearly seventy degrees forward and entered another nose-dive. ATC gave Flight 261 a block altitude and alerted other airliners in the vicinity. Those who witnessed the stricken jet confirmed the following: “That plane has definitely started doing a huge plunge…definitely in a nosedive…descending quite rapidly…definitely out of control”6.
The CVR transcript revealed that during their harrowing plunge, the two pilots performed an upset recovery maneuver. The captain commanded the co-pilot to “push and roll, push and roll…” to invert the aircraft5. Unlike Captain Whitaker’s attempt, though, their attempt at a barrel roll was unsuccessful. After nearly two minutes of freefall, the spiraling vessel smacked into the ocean, killing everyone on board via blunt force impact trauma (88 total- 2 pilots, 3 crew members, and 83 passengers).
What a horrifying scenario! It is worth considering, though, just how safe commercial flights really are. Before every plane takes off, experts walk around and inspect all its probes, sensors, structural components, exposed motors, and cables6. They then test the interior fire detectors, warning lights, weather radar, and other systems6. The maintenance staff is responsible for all these checks, which occur in A-B-C-D intervals6. A-checks are conducted after 500 hours of flying6. D-checks take place every six days or so6. A detailed inventory and operational state of all equipment onboard is recorded, and any crew member who discovers a fault refers it to maintenance6. Basically, plane crashes are in the same percentage category as shark attacks. So…bon voyage!
Part II- “Liquid Courage”
Notice in Part I of this article that I didn’t dole out my usual “spoiler alerts.” I haven’t given away the film by revealing that Captain Whitaker survives the emergency landing and saves nearly everyone on board. That is only the starting premise for the movie.
Remember, Captain Whitaker was hungover before he went to go fly a commercial plane. He also stealthily drank two miniature bottles of vodka while he was on board.
In a parallel story (while Whitaker saves Flight 227) Nicole (Kelly Reilly), a person with a drug addiction at a nearby motel, overdoses on heroin (the EMTs escorting her out via stretcher look up and see the inverted plane).
Whip recovers in a nearby hospital, where he meets Nicole and a cancer patient in an empty hallway, and they speak deeply about things. Whip hits it off with Nicole and becomes romantically involved with her.
Everyone who sees or meets Whip showers him with praise and gratitude, including his best friend and colleague, Charlie Anderson (Bruce Greenwood). However, a disturbing revelation comes to light that threatens Whitaker’s reputation and career.
Charlie and Whip meet lawyer Hugh Lang (Don Cheadle) one morning in a hotel restaurant. Lang reveals that the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) ran toxicology reports on all crew members after the emergency landing/crash. Sure enough, the alcohol level in Whitaker’s blood was off the charts! Whip is initially angry and defiant, trying to remind Lang that if it weren’t for him (Whitaker)— “there’d be 102 funerals…not 6!” Lang simply reminds Whip that he’s just here to help him.
Whip dumps out all his liquor. On edge about the newest revelation, though, he stops by a hotel bar and throws back shots of Stoli. Over the course of the film, as the NTSB investigation continues, Whip’s drinking habits worsen. His substance abuse also drives a wedge between himself and Nicole (who desperately tries to stay clean from drugs) as well as his ex-wife (Garcelle Beauvais) and son, Will (Justin Martin).
Whip, who inevitably appears before the NTSB panel and investigator Ellen Block (Melissa Leo), attempts to stop drinking and come to terms with his alcoholism.
Alcoholism. Substance abuse. Drinking problems. The “sauce” is of course far riskier than flying on any commercial airliner. Films like Days of Wine and Roses (1962), The Lost Weekend (1945), and Leaving Las Vegas (1995) have all dealt with the theme of alcoholism. Nicholas Cage won an Oscar for his role in the latter as Ben Sanderson, a man who moves to Las Vegas, befriends a sex worker, and deliberately drinks himself to death. The Lost Weekend was the film that gave us the famous quote: “One’s too many and one hundred’s not enough.” Then we of course have Homer Simpson’s elegant observation: “Here’s to alcohol…the cause of and solution to all of life’s problems!” Frank “The Tank” from Old School (2003) describes the craving: “Once it hits your lips! So good!”
Alcohol is by far one of the most dangerous drugs that humanity has ever dabbled with. People overdose on it, get in horrible car wrecks because of it, pick fights with people, destroy relationships, have unsafe sex, commit acts of sexual assault or even murder, destroy their liver, increase their odds of all sorts of diseases, and do lots of other foolish things. And yet it’s everywhere. Bars have it. Convenient stores have it. Restaurants have it. Birthday parties have it. Weddings have it. Sporting events have it. Movie theaters, grocery stores, and, yes, even commercial airliners have it. “Most dangerous” isn’t its only superlative. “Most common” is as well.
According to Web MD, at least 16 million people- adults and adolescents- in the U.S. have an alcohol use disorder7. An alcohol use disorder (AUD) is a “chronic illness in which [a person] cannot stop or control [their] drinking even though it hurts [their] life, job, or health”7. Experts of course recommend that if you do drink you do so “in moderation,” which roughly translates to one-drink-a-day (i.e., 1.5 ounces of liquor, 5 ounces of wine, or 12 ounces of beer)7.
A person crosses into an AUD when their urge to drink is uncontrollable, they lack control over how much they drink, negative thoughts pervade when they don’t drink, or they stop doing important activities because of alcohol7. A person with an AUD may drink in risky situations, their drinking may interfere with the things they enjoy, or they continue drinking even though it causes or worsens various problems7. People need a drink to go to sleep or to go to work or to thrive in social settings. They want to dampen their anxiety or forget their responsibilities or escape reality. In the case of someone who’s physically dependent, they experience Delirium Tremens (DTs) without it. They shake, vomit, lose sleep, and experience seizures (all withdrawal symptoms)7.
Anyone who’s been very drunk knows the whole song and dance—the pale face, slurred speech, loss of balance, blurred vision, vague memories, and repeated thoughts. But what really happens when people drink to the point of intoxication? Alcohol hits people quickly. It is absorbed through one’s stomach lining into their bloodstream and from there it takes only five minutes to reach the brain9.
Once it reaches the brain it blocks various communication pathways, enhancing the function of inhibitory neurotransmitters and neuromodulators such as GABA, glycine, and adenosine10. This in turn decreases the function of excitatory neurotransmitters such as glutamate and aspartate10. After 20 minutes the liver starts processing alcohol9, and once a person reaches the legal limit (0.08 BAC) it takes five hours or longer for the alcohol to leave the person’s system9. Intoxication essentially occurs when there’s too much alcohol for the body to break down and metabolize in a timely manner. In severe cases, confusion, vomiting, comas, or even death occurs.
Basically, Captain Whip Whitaker faces a difficult addiction. Whether psychological urges or physical dependency drives him is unclear, but he certainly cannot control himself, and the fact that he “performs under serious pressure” (i.e., when he flies a plane) is not a good thing! In the end, flying mirrors Whip’s struggle with alcoholism. He rises to the heavens and then crashes to the earth. If one survives a “crash,” though, there’s hope for recovery!
SAMHSA’s National Helpline is a free, confidential, 24/7, 365-day-a-year treatment referral and information service (in English and Spanish) for individuals and families facing mental and/or substance use disorders. Call 1-800-662-HELP (4357).
 Wilson, Marc (May 26, 1979). “270 killed in Chicago crash, worst in U.S. history”. Eugene Register-Guard. (Oregon). Associated Press. p. 1A.
 “Worst U.S. plane crash kills 271”. Pittsburgh Press. UPI. May 26, 1979. p. A1.
 “Fatal Chicago crash is laid to airline”. The Blade. (Toledo, Ohio). Associated Press. December 22, 1979. p. 1.
 Ranter, Harro (November 12, 2001). “ASN Aircraft accident Airbus A300B4-605R N14053 Belle Harbor, NY”. aviation-safety.net. Aviation Safety Network. Archived from the original on April 20, 2014. Retrieved April 20, 2016.
 “Aircraft Accident Report, Loss of Control and Impact with Pacific Ocean Alaska Airlines Flight 261 McDonnell Douglas MD-83, N963AS About 2.7 Miles [4.3 km] North of Anacapa Island, California, January 31, 2000” (PDF). National Transportation Safety Board. December 30, 2002. NTSB/AAR-02/01. Archived (PDF) from the original on June 15, 2016. Retrieved September 9, 2016.
 What Kinds Of Safety Checks Do Planes Undergo Before They Fly? (forbes.com)
 Alcohol Use Disorder (webmd.com)
 “How long does alcohol stay in your blood?”. NHS Choices. 26 June 2018.