A flight to redemption

Yesterday I saw the movie Flight starring Denzel Washington. I have wanted to see this move for quite a while and was finally able to see it before it left the theatres. In short, the film is a fantastic story that was more than I expected. Best of all, it involved two of my favorite subject matters: airplanes and human redemption.

Denzel Washington plays a seasoned airline pilot (Captain Whip Whitaker) flying for a low budget southeast regional carrier named SouthJet (think ValuJet). The movie begins with Captain Whitaker piloting a routine flight between Orlando and Atlanta. Serving as his partner for the flight is a young and inexperienced co-pilot named Ken Evans. As the flight departs Orlando International Airport and ascends to its cursing altitude, it becomes caught up in a violent thunderstorm forcing the flight to divert from its original flight path to seek smoother weather.

Minutes before the final approach to Atlanta, the MD-80 aircraft experiences a complete flight control failure forcing the jet into an uncontrollable dive. With the co-pilot now completely freaked out, Whitaker calmly assumes control of the situation by executing a series of instinctual and unconventional maneuvers including applying additional thrust, increasing drag and rolling the aircraft completely upside down to correct the dive and achieve level flight. During this time, both engines blow out and cannot be extinguished or re-started. The scene in the cabin is horrifying with people falling out of their seats, vomiting and rolling around uncontrollably.

Without power and unable to locate an alternative airport, Whitaker indentifies an open field to crash land the jet. He rolls the aircraft right-side up and begins an aggressive accent towards the field. Seconds before impact, Whitaker realizes they are approaching the property of a Baptist church and severs the church steeple with the right wing before slamming into the ground.

The crash turns out to be miraculous. Out of 102 passengers, 96 survive the crash. Among the victims is stewardess Katerina Marquez who is killed when she leaves her seat to assist a young boy back into his seat before the crash landing. As the National Transportation and Safety Board (NTSB) investigation gets underway, Whip Whitaker is declared a hero for a masterful crash landing and is praised by the media, friends and colleagues. Additionally, he discovers that other veteran pilots attempted to duplicate his maneuvers in a flight simulator. All failed to arrest the dive and ended up crashing nose first.

Seems like a heroic Captain Sully Sullenberger landing on the Hudson River story, right? There’s just one complication; Whip Whitaker is an alcoholic and drug addict.

Before flights, Whitaker consumes a variety of alcoholic beverages then snorts lines of cocaine to restore his senses and concentration prior to entering the cockpit. He summons the “services” of his buddy Harling Mays (brilliantly played by John Goodman) to dispense and administer his drugs. During the NTSB investigation, this addiction has now caught up with Whitaker with his drug test after the crash confirming he was indeed intoxicated prior to the Orlando to Atlanta journey.

Towards the end of the movie, Whitaker is called to testify before a formal NTSB investigation board in Atlanta. During the hearing, Whitaker’s heroic aircraft maneuvers are acknowledged by the lead NTSB investigator. The NTSB board concludes by rolling the MD-80 upside down and maintaing an inverted flight attitude, Whitaker arrested the dive and prevented the aircraft from slamming into the ground nose first.  The NTSB also uncovered the cause of the mechanical failure. This was due to a worn jackscrew assembly located in the tail section of the aircraft. The jackscrew controls the horizontal stabilizer flap that is responsible for the aircraft’s pitch (climbing and diving). Because the threads of the jackscrew were worn, the horizontal stabilizer flap became stuck in the down position thereby forcing the MD-80 aircraft into an uncontrollable dive.

Because of a technicality, Whitaker’s drug test becomes inadmissible. However, it is discovered there is another member of the flight crew with alcohol detected in their system. The person in question is the deceased stewardess Katerina Marquez. The NTSB lead investigator asks Whitaker if he believes that Marquez had been drinking before the flight. Whitaker evades the question and instead stares at the enlarged photo of Marquez before him.

At that moment, he hears the screams of sobriety echoing in his head. He knows he could walk away a glorified hero while pinning the alcohol problem on Marquez but he doesn’t. More importantly, he realizes she was also heroic in sacrificing her own life for the safety of a young passenger and should also be praised for her efforts. He cannot tarnish her good name.

In this moment of personal reflection, Whitaker decides he must finally become accountable for his reckless addictions. Whitaker then admits to the NTSB lead that he had also been drinking before the flight and is in fact an alcoholic. This shocking confession strips Whitaker of his wings, his career and sends him to federal prison.

The movie concludes with Whitaker lecturing his fellow inmates on the lessons he’s learned and admitting that the consequences suffered from his irresponsible actions were fair and liberating. In short, Whitaker’s fateful 52 minute flight turns out to be a flight to personal redemption.

The last scene of the move shows Whitaker visiting his estranged son. The son explains that he is now applying for colleges and needs Whitaker’s help in writing a letter addressing the topic: “A fascinating person you have never met”. His son then asks him “So, who are you?”

“That’s a great question” replies Whitaker.

The screen fades to black.

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