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In Die Hard 2 (1990), because of the terrorist situation, the planes are told to stay in their holding pattern until the situation is sorted out. It gets worse because some of the planes are low on fuel.

Colonel Stuart tapped all communications, and gave them a warning, so the ground team can't talk to the planes.

Would it have been possible to make an external call to someone higher up in the government, and get the military to help re-fuel the planes in the air?

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    Maybe they could do it Executive Decision style and suction cup a stealth bomber to the underside of the fuselage. Then Kurt Russell could carry the fuel over in jerrycans. – MooseBoys Dec 18 '19 at 5:50
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    You have to suspend your disbelief a bit with Die Hard 2, because any of the aircraft on the ground at a gate or remote stand could trivially have been used to contact the aircraft above - but the writers just ignored that aspect and went with “the radios used by ATC are special”. – Moo Dec 18 '19 at 8:25
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    A minor correction. The planes were told to stay in their holding pattern, which means flying round and round over the same 20 miles or so of circuit. Hovering means staying stationary in one place. With very few exceptions (such as the Harrier and Osprey), planes do not hover. – Graham Dec 18 '19 at 15:12
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    @Harper-ReinstateMonica In December? Pretty high. – Martijn Heemels Dec 19 '19 at 9:45
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    @MartijnHeemels - Is it considered a Christmas movie like Die Hard? I know last year they showed it along Die Hard in a action weekend special. – user78021 Dec 19 '19 at 15:22
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Generally speaking, most likely no. Refueling in mid-air requires special equipment on both the giver and receiver for this process to work, and it looks like most commercial planes do not have this equipment.

Aerial fueling with other aircrafts

  1. Civilian aircraft: Commercial and private airplanes are not designed for air-to-air refueling.

how-do-airplanes-refuel-in-the-air

This makes sense from a logistics perspective. Most commercial airlines generally don't have the need to refuel midair, and carrying around the extra equipment can be heavy and costly.

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    Not to mention that aerial refueling is a very specialized procedure that takes a lot of practice and stil regularly goes wrong, something far outside the competence of normal airline pilots. – Borgh Dec 18 '19 at 7:52
  • Also it's very likely that airport wouldn't have had a refiling plane and/or it would have been empty. – Иво Недев Dec 18 '19 at 13:28
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    Even if the planes had the equipment, they would have likely had to exit the holding pattern to do it, so it would have not complied with the terrorist's demands anyway. – computercarguy Dec 18 '19 at 18:42
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    IIRC, the Air Force One 747 planes are modified to include a midair refueling nozzle. That's the kind of special case where you'd find that equipment on an airliner. – Peter Cordes Dec 18 '19 at 19:13
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    There has not been a majority of USA airline pilots with military background in over a decade @MadPhysicist there is a chance, but it would only give about a third of the aircraft a chance. – Nij Dec 20 '19 at 2:35
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Commercial aircraft are not designed to refuel in air

In-air refueling requires a specially fitted aircraft to receive the fuel from the tanker. In addition pilots require specialist training to approach close enough to the tanker to use the refueling equipment

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    Exactly. This is a specialist manoeuvrer. Commercial aircraft do ordinarily never need this function so they don't have it. No profit in it. – Mast Dec 18 '19 at 18:03
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    A large part of the reason is that mid-air refueling is dangerous. Despite all the training, military aircraft crash every year because of refueling mishaps. – Mark Dec 18 '19 at 22:21
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Refueling midair doesn't work unless a special receptacle is built into the receiving airplane.

In truth, the Die Hard 2 situation would have taken care of itself.

They wouldn't run out of gas

As airplanes ran low on fuel (or simply, as they sensed which way the wind was blowing, and it's an airplane, they have instruments for that), the pilots would have said "Frak this felgercarb" and gone somewhere else.

By "low on fuel" I mean SOP is to have a divert/alternate airport already selected, such as Frederick ;), BWI, National, Winchester etc, or ideally another major airport that is an operating base for that airline or partner. They know how much fuel it takes to reach their divert airport, and to make one missed approach/go-around there and then land -- without invading their fuel reserve.

So they'd break out of the hold before that fuel point and go land at their alternate. If they missed approach at their alternate for a reason likely to repeat itself (e.g. crosswinds), they'd declare an emergency and go to a third airport, and to hell with customs and immigration!

Bad Guy doesn't have control of every airport. Also, military airports are usually available for emergency flights.

They wouldn't crash into the ground

The pilots would notice the ground coming up faster than expected, and go "oh hell no" and punch TO/GA. They'd then get on the radio and warn everyone else, and aviation radios aren't full duplex, so ATC couldn't have shut down plane-plane comms. Even if one aircraft managed to fireball, certainly no other aircraft would attempt that landing at that point, and certainly not ILS.

At that point, planes would've treated Dulles as cootie and taken their business elsewhere. The Northeast Corridor is a fantastic place to have that problem, because you have National, BWI, Philly, Newark and the NYC airports, all well connected via Amtrak's 125/150 mph Corridor service from Boston to Richmond, which gets a lot of people home, or easily to connecting flights at BWI or PHL (which have good Amtrak-air connections).

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  • Thank you for this. The writers really went overboard on this one. – Mad Physicist Dec 19 '19 at 16:21
  • "ATC couldn't have shut down plane-plane comms" – Couldn't they effectively shut down plane–plane communications by just constantly transmitting? Planes could use an alternate frequency to talk to each other, of course, but they'd have to somehow coordinate which frequency to use to do that. – Tanner Swett Dec 20 '19 at 2:56
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    @TannerSwett Yeah, that would work, but it would cause anyone monitoring to go WTH. They would probably have the last frequency they used to talk to enroute controllers in the system (they are also published) and would just talk to somebody else. – Harper - Reinstate Monica Dec 20 '19 at 3:25
  • Thank you for teaching me a new expression, which I did not expect to actually exist (I thought it was made up on the spot) – WoJ Dec 20 '19 at 15:03
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    "They wouldn't crash into the ground" -- the other reason they wouldn't crash into the ground is that the whole idea of a big magic dial in the control tower that changes the ILS guidance is ridiculous. The glideslope for the ILS is defined by the position of the antenna; this isn't something that ATC has control over in real-time. (Next to all the other farcical plot devices in that movie, the "PacWest" phone booths in an ostensible East-coast location were downright mundane :) ) – Peter Duniho Dec 20 '19 at 19:06

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