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The pivotal airplane voyage in the movie Flight includes an early interlude in which the airplane encounters some extreme turbulence. To get out of the turbulence, the senior pilot (played by Denzel Washington) makes some maneuvers that -- judging by the reaction of his junior co-pilot -- are risky and unusual, and seem to strain the plane. But the maneuvers appear to work, as the airplane clears the turbulence and begins flying smoothly.

Something like 30 minutes later, after the airplane has been flying normally for awhile, it suffers equipment failure near its tail, causing it to crash.

During the investigation that takes up the rest of the movie, no one seems to mention the early turbulence or those risky and unusual turbulence-avoiding maneuvers as a potential cause of the equipment failure. Was there some reason why the turbulence or the maneuvers wouldn't have played a role in the eventual failure and crash?

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2 Answers

I haven't seen the movie, but I am a pilot.

If the severe turbulence is caused by a lightning cell, no aircraft can withstand its severe alternating updrafts and downdrafts which typically break off wings, rudder, tail, and probably bust up the fuselage. Any maneuver which can be done to exit it soon is sensible—especially considering the alternative. This is definitely a situation when the pilot doesn't care if the passengers are comfortable.

More than likely—and if the script is based on aviation science—it wasn't the maneuvers which broke the plane: it was the storm.

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+1 Thanks for insight. I just updated question to ask if either the maneuvers OR the turbulence itself could have caused later failure and crash. –  Shiz Z. May 7 '13 at 22:59
    
Good answer! I suggest you watch the movie as it would help you gain a little more perspective on the context. Moreover, its a nice film! –  KeyBrd Basher May 8 '13 at 5:23
    
@KeyBrdBasher: Okay, I just added it to my Netflix queue. –  wallyk May 8 '13 at 5:27
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Just saw the movie.

Shortly after takeoff from Orlando, the aircraft faces two lines of heavy rainstorms and is inside the first. Whip doesn't do anything particularly unusual except for not climbing for a few seconds when most pilots would be trying to get over the disturbance as soon as possible. He spots a small weak slot in the storm on the plane's weather radar, turns 30° right for it and then resumes climbing. Other than misrepresenting the reason for temporarily leveling out to ATC, he doesn't actually do anything wrong. He does accelerate to the limit of maneuvering speed which bothers the copilot (as does almost everything Whip), but has a reasonable rationale for it. Why he doesn't continue to climb is a mystery, but I thought I caught some dialog suggesting he has deep knowledge about the structure of the formation. Such decisions are the pilot's prerogative.

The maneuvers in heavy weather certainly put more stress on the elevator (the movable horizontal portion of the tail) and could have caused even more stripping seen on the jack screw shown in the NTSB hearing, though that photo was taken more than a year before the accident and the jack screw was way overdue for replacement.

The precise failure was the jack screw jamming in a steep dive pitch position. The photo shows an already seriously deficient part which no sane mechanic would allow. It would not need to be further stressed for it to fail as portrayed. The rest of the damage logically follows: hydraulic failure from the jammed jack screw, inverted flight burning out the engines, etc.

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