4 Myths About Flying Movies Want Us To Believe
Welcome to Hollywood Myths, Cracked — our new series where we look at some of the many untruths the Lords Of Movieland want us to believe about men flying commercial planes and … men flying jet planes. Boy, aviation movies sure have a lot of male ego filling them out. No wonder the original Top Gun didn't feature much actual story — there simply wasn't any room for it.
Anyway, flying largely seems to be a man's world, and as such, it is naturally riddled with grandiose assumptions and macho tropes about what it is and means to be a pilot. Let's not waste any time jetting into the foggy skies and debunking those aviation myths that movies want us to believe. For instance, did you know …
Pilots Just Aren't Going To Sweat Like That In The Cockpit
We saw it in Top Gun:
We saw it in Red Tails:
And don't forget Ben Affleck and Josh Hartnett just constantly looking wet and greasy in Pearl Harbor:
Yeah, that's not the look of an actual pilot flying thousands of feet in the air. That's the look of an actor sweating because he's wearing a suit and props. It's why even Luke Skywalker gets a little shiny around the nose … in freaking space.
Heck, in Top Gun even the CATCC controller is sweating:
That poor sack sweating up there shouldn't be because the Carrier Air Traffic Control Center is an environment that would (and should) be kept pretty cool, what with all those crucial electronics in there. As for the pilots, it's kind of cold up there in the sky, you guys. Pilots simply won't be dripping sweat like cartoon characters trying to figure out whether to cut the red wire or the blue one.
Yes, movies always show a pilot with a soggy brow to indicate that the stakes are high and the pressure's on. But, you know … we can totally see that? We as an audience are very much aware that our dude is flying really freaking high, and any wrong move could see him literally plunge to a probable fiery death. We're not geniuses, but we do get that, Hollywood.
Alas, filmmakers will likely continue to portray pilots like they've just been waterboarded. Even the boys in Unbroken have shiny wet faces — and their planes aren't even fully closed up:
And speaking of fighter pilots …
Fighter Pilots Will Want To Hang On To Those Oxygen Masks
We get that movies want to portray many a pilot like some rebel cowboy who believes he can defy even the laws of gravity or whatever, and that's all fine and good for those mindless action flicks where the plot seems to be the equivalent of a vapor trail. However, certain tropes just feel lazy at this point and are only there because of some filmmaking workaround. Like all jet pilots who'll just rip their masks off whenever they need to talk — which is absurd because the mic is inside the mask — or wherever the filmmaker clearly wants us to see mister pilot's handsome chops. We're pretty sure it's the only reason they allowed Leonardo DiCaprio to fly in The Aviator like this:
Yeah, no Hollywood studio is going to fork out millions of billions for an actor just to have him hide his face behind a mask. But here's the thing: Those masks that jet pilots wear aren't optional gear for looking all smarmy and hardcore. They're mandatory, and they prevent pilots from developing hypoxia which is when the body's functions are impaired because it's low on oxygen. So, you know, it's kind of important for a pilot to not get hypoxia. But oh brother, tell that to this nut who, to be fair, is already losing his cool in Top Gun:
Or these rogue fellas in Armageddon handling those masks like every other jerk during a pandemic:
Just everyone in Midway and also Red Tails, not giving a flying fig:
Will Smith literally needs to yell it to this one dude while fighting alien jets that look like turtle shells in Independence Day:
Sure, all these guys think they're invincible and are clearly writing cheques their bodies can't cash, but in the real world, expect to either get fired, sick, or die when attempting stunts like this. That is if you want to believe former Tomcat flight officer Commander Ward Carroll and also U.S. Air Force Reserve F-35 fighter pilot Hasard Lee, who explained that Jimmy up there really needed to keep his mask on because jet planes have oxygen regulators that have backup systems in case of any failure. It's all there to make sure a pilot doesn't pass the hell out and drop from the sky.
Unfortunately for Jimmy, it's not going to magically fix his panic attack.
Everything About Flight Is, Just, Wrong
There's always one standout movie that's the most loathed by professionals in its real-world industry. For chefs, it's Bradley Cooper's Burnt. For divers, it's 47 Meters Down. For pilots, that honor belongs to the movie where Denzel Washington does cocaine and flies a plane upside down. You probably wouldn't even remember the movie, really, if it weren't for that absolute bonkers first act where he does this with a commercial plane (the hullabaloo starts around 4:35, but we'll be discussing this entire scene):
Yikes. Now, first off, that scene was (loosely) based on the 2000 real-life fatal flight of Alaska Airlines Flight 261 that saw the plane spiral down and crash into the Pacific Ocean, killing everyone on board. The plane nose-dived from the sky due to a terribly negligent malfunction of the jackscrew — a part that literally helps to lift and stabilize a plane. As the plane spiraled, it started rolling until it was inverted (upside down) because the big metal bird literally had no horizontal or vertical control anymore.
It was a tragic accident and could've been prevented if proper maintenance had been done on the plane, but there was nothing the pilots or any of the crew or even passengers could've done. This makes it not only bizarre but also kind of arrogant for Flight to come and pretend that, oh, a pilot could totally save lives by flying a plane (with, you guessed it, a broken jackscrew) upside down before rolling it back around in time for a crash landing. Sometimes, Hollywood seems to be snorting too much of its own magic.
But let's start at the beginning because this movie gets stuff wrong from the get-go. Says Steve Satre, a long-time commercial pilot: "It's a rainy morning in Orlando, and Captain Whitaker is completing his pre-flight walkaround inspection of the plane. That's when the movie loses all credibility for me. Very few captains perform any walkaround, and virtually no captain will do one in the rain."
We hear that. The next big egregious liberty the movie takes is showing Captain Whitaker not only reasoning but actually attempting to "outfly" a storm. Sartre and also every other pilot have noted that one can usually spot a storm on that little gadget-thingy known as weather radar, and most everyone would plan ahead to avoid choppy weather completely rather than try and speed from one smooth air pocket to another. Also, when going through rough weather, a pilot would normally slow a plane down to cause fewer bumps, not speed it up like Captain Cocaine.
The film goes on to treat its co-pilot like he's some sort of trainee, which, if you didn't know, is not how co-pilots work at all. Not to mention the fact that a boozy pilot like Captain Whitaker wouldn't last long at any airline — they're pretty strict on testing for substances, and co-pilots will totally rat each other out on account of it being all life and death stuff up there.
As for the idea that you could actually control an inverted plane? "It's an imaginative premise," says Satre.
"Whatever aerobatic and aerodynamic possibilities exist here aren't anything I can vouch for," says airline pilot Patrick Smith. "Wikipedia tells us that the late Lyle Shelton, a former stunt pilot, worked as a technical adviser. Perhaps Shelton could have told us more about that upside-down business, but he wasn't an airline pilot."
Missiles Don't Fly The Way We Think They Do
In Behind Enemy Lines, there's this scene where Owen Wilson is trying to dodge a missile with an impressive lifespan:
It's a good scene. It's just a pity the physics is all wrong. According to jet pilot Christine "Grinder" Mau, who served in the U.S. Air Force for 20 years and was the first woman to ever fly the F-35, the missiles used here are based on infrared-guided missiles used for short-range targets. Yeah, they won't be up there for a long time. Mau explains that a missile will burn in its booster phase and, once it's burnt out, that's it for Mister Missile. Truly, they are the sparklers of the 'splodey world.
Pilot Mau also criticizes the jet pilots for turning their planes upward and almost vertical, saying it's the last thing you'd want to do when an infrared missile is hot on your trail because it makes you a clear target against the sky's big blue backdrop. What you really want to do is to maneuver your plane as low as possible and put out flares so the missile could track those heat signatures instead. Man, we are making all the notes.
Even the new Top Gun: Maverick plays fast and loose with the actual workings of missiles. During the end part of the movie, Maverick and the boys are dodging a swarm of Soviet-era S-125 short-range anti-aircraft missiles. "While the scene is undeniably exciting, the portrayal slips squarely into the cliché territory," says aviation expert Clement Charpentreau. He goes on to say that it doesn't make sense for Maverick to launch flares because it'd be useless against these missiles (they're radar guided), and he also mentions that they detonate entirely differently than normal missiles -- making the explosion proximity all wrong in the film.
But hey, it's all about what's more exciting-looking on the big screen. Still, Mau says, jet pilots just need to wear their freaking masks.
Thumbnail: Thumbnail: Paramount Pictures/20th Century Studios