10 Airplane Movie Myths Debunked [What Hollywood Got Wrong]

They’re exciting, high-speed, and entertaining, but let’s face it: airplane movies are one of the main reasons non-pilots believe all kinds of crazy myths about flying. If you want the real deal about truly adventurous aviation, we suggest reading ASA Fliers: In Their Own Words and Famous First Flights – Sixteen Dramatic Adventures.

But, if you’re in the mood to laugh and shake your head at the sheer ridiculousness of some of Hollywood’s biggest aviation believability blunders, here’s the playlist for you (complete with links to watch just the referenced scenes).

1.      If there’s a hole in the plane, the passengers can all be sucked out.

James Bond: Goldfinger,” “Snakes on a Plane,” and “Final Destination,” we’re looking at you. While it does make for dramatic cinema, the odds of getting ripped out of a plane due to explosive depressurization are extremely slim.

We’re not saying it’s impossible. In fact, a single passenger was partially pulled out of the aircraft when Southwest Airlines Flight 1380 suffered a rapid decompression, and the pilot of British Airways Flight 5390 was also partially ejected from the cockpit when his windscreen failed (spoiler alert: he actually survived!)

These real-world events show that to be pulled out of a plane, you usually need to be seated right near where a massive hole appears, and not wearing your seatbelt. If a very large hole were torn in the fuselage of a pressurized plane, the cabin pressure would quickly equalize with external air pressure. There would still be a whirlwind of airflow in the cabin, but unlike the extended vacuum effect sequences Hollywood portrays, decompression and equalization would be quick. The odds of you being pulled all the way across the cabin and out a hole, let alone whole rows of seats getting sucked out are very slim.

The bigger dangers in a large-scale explosive decompression scenario are actually luggage and debris moving around the cabin, extreme temperature drops if you’re at a high altitude, and rapid-onset hypoxia.

2.      Midair transfers between jets are possible.

Cliffhanger,” and “Air Force One” both show suspense-filled mid-air transfers from one aircraft to another. The stakes are high and the drama intense, but the odds of such feats being performed in real life under those circumstances are virtually nil.

In fact, this behind the scenes look at the “Cliffhanger” stunt explains just how many variables like airspeed, altitude, and temperature factored into filming the dangerous maneuver. Pilots on the Straightdope message boards agree—plane to plane mid-air transfers on bi-planes during the barnstorming days were different. In real life, at altitude, with the minimum airspeeds required to keep a jet from stalling, a mid-air jet-to-jet transfer is the stuff of Hollywood flying myth and aviation folklore.

3.      Air Marshals can get away with being drunk and smoking on the job.

Given their mysterious personas and high-stakes aviation industry jobs, federal air marshals are obvious subjects for airplane disaster and hijacking movies. Some of the details Hollywood gets right, but they also take a lot of creative liberties when it comes to what these agents could possibly get away with while keeping their jobs and security clearances.

In action thriller “Non-Stop,” Liam Neeson’s air marshal character is seen drowning his feelings in a stiff pre-flight drink at the airport parking garage prior to catching his duty flight. Later we see him sneak a smoke in the on-board lavatory. Neeson’s marshal may have gotten away with these reckless actions on-screen, but in real life, all the breath freshening spray in the world wouldn’t cut it.

Want to know how other film depictions of air marshals stack up? Watch a real-world former air marshal review and rate the realism of movie clips involving federal air marshals. (Spoiler alert: most of the movies failed the test).

4.      Physics-defying “Hollywood Helicopter Lift” is a real thing.

There’s lift, there’s drag, there’s thrust…and then there’s “Hollywood lift.” If you are a helicopter pilot or have spent any time studying the principles of rotary flight, you know that a lot of the helicopter stunts you see on film are aerodynamically impossible in real life.

Just take a look at the insane nearly perpendicular hover angles shown in both “Tomorrow Never Dies” and “Jumanji (2017).” Apparently Hollywood helicopters operate under entirely different laws of physics than the real world.

5.      A plane automatically nosedives if the pilot lets go of the yoke.

If an aircraft is at cruising altitude and is properly trimmed for straight and level flight, it doesn’t just start to plummet if the pilot takes his or her hands of the controls. Plus, a passenger jet at that altitude would be on autopilot not manual control.

This doesn’t make for good cinema though, so “Snakes on a Plane” instead throws the jet into a sudden nosedive once all the pilots are killed off.

6.      Space planes maneuver and handle just like those flown in Earth’s atmosphere.

We enjoy watching the big screen depictions of WWII-era dogfights in all different variations of space planes, but are scenes from movies and series like “Armageddon,” “Battlestar Galactica,” “Star Wars” realistic?

The craft we see onscreen often look very similar to the design of current planes and jets built to fly within Earth’s atmosphere. There’s just one problem: space is a vacuum. There’s no atmosphere to generate lift in space. Also, jet engines need oxygen for combustion.  All those dramatic banking angles and aerial maneuvers? Sorry—many of them require to effects of gravity to perform. 

Want to learn more of the physics behind why building a space plane is “nearly impossible”? Check out this video.

7.      The purpose of oxygen masks on commercial flights is just to make you calm in the event of a crash.

Brad Pitt can convince us of a lot, but despite his “Flight Club” character’s creative assertation that supplemental oxygen is provided solely to make panicked passengers euphoric and accepting of their fate in the event of a crash, we’re just not buying it.  

Sure, the oxygen is going to make you feel better, but the irony is that in the real world, you would be way more euphoric from the hypoxia caused if the aircraft decompresses and you have no supplemental oxygen.

8.      If you lose an engine, you’re automatically going to crash.

The intense drama of the “Flight of the Phoenix” airplane crash scene is visually gripping, but in real life, will a single engine failure on a twin-engine aircraft automatically end in catastrophe? No.

Twin engine airliners are certified to be able to land safely even if one engine fails. Even light twins will at least be able to glide “to the scene of the crash,” as the saying goes rather than plummeting into a sudden nosedive. Either way, the odds of a high-drama series of events like you see in airplane disaster movies is unlikely.

9.       Planes that get struck by lightning are doomed to crash.

Along the same lines as #8, when movies show a lightning strike, it’s usually catastrophic. See the pilot and copilot both being killed as a strike causes the control panel in front of them to explode and catch fire in 1996’s “Panic in the Skies” (start watching at 12:50).

In reality, although the National Weather Service estimates that one to two passenger planes are struck by lightning each year, the last confirmed lightning-strike caused crash happened back in 1967.

The fuselage of modern aircraft acts as a Faraday cage, meaning that in most cases, the electric charge from a lightning strike will run along the exterior of the aircraft and the current will exit though the tail while causing only minor damage. The sensitive electrical components in the interior of the aircraft are grounded and protected from harm.

10. Commercial airline jets can fly upside down.

Sorry, Denzel. While “Flight’s” visual of a Douglas jet flying inverted may be thrilling and loosely based on the short inverted flight of Alaska Airlines Flight 261 (which ended in a fatal crash), large jets don’t handle like acrobatic aircraft. They also just aren’t built to perform this type of stunt. Even if a pilot did manage to roll a jet onto its back, the structural pressure on the airframe would be outside its operating envelope and the odds of a safe landing are slim.

Hollywood doesn’t seem to have gotten the memo though, because Turbulence also features an upside-down plane action sequence, and Airport ’79 offers audiences yet another look at an inverted jet aircraft, this time a Concorde.

Aviation History: One notable rare exception to the “jets can’t fly upside down and live to tell about it” rule is Federal Express Flight 705 , a Douglas DC-10 aircraft which was the subject of a failed hijack attempt by a FedEx employee. The first officer, an ex-Navy pilot, rolled the plane 140-degrees and put it into a 15-degree climb during the ordeal. Amazingly, although these maneuvers were well outside the tested safety limits, the aircraft held together and was able to be landed safely. Incredibly, after careful inspection, the plane was able to be kept in service for nearly 25 years after the incident.

Planning an Aviation Movie Marathon? Add These Favorites to the List:

It’s your turn

Pilots and aviation movie fans, weigh in. What other egregious aviation errors have you noticed in some of your favorite (or least favorite) movies?


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