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Can airliners really fly upside down?

By Thom Patterson, CNN
updated 2:54 PM EST, Thu January 10, 2013
Searchers investigate wreckage from United Airlines Flight 232 after it crash landed in Sioux City, Iowa, in 1989.
Searchers investigate wreckage from United Airlines Flight 232 after it crash landed in Sioux City, Iowa, in 1989.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Aviation buffs question authenticity of Denzel Washington movie "Flight"
  • Film's pilot consultant: Director Robert Zemeckis claimed artistic license
  • United Flight 232 pilot Al Haynes describes losing flight control
  • 1989 Sioux City, Iowa, disaster among aviation's most remarkable crash landings

(CNN) -- The pilot turned his airliner upside down. On purpose. And it saved nearly a hundred lives.

That's the idea behind one of the most intense movie moments of the holiday season: the core scene of "Flight," starring Denzel Washington as pilot Whip Whitaker. Hollywood sure likes Washington's performance. The role earned him an Oscar nomination Thursday on the heels of a Golden Globe nod in December. The film also received a nod for best original screenplay.

Spinning movie sets combine with CGI to make the scene "more than gut-wrenching," wrote CNN's Tom Charity. Hitflix ranks it among the "most harrowing plane crashes ever seen."

(By the way, no spoilers here.)

Thanks to masterful editing, we see a series of jerky, split-second glimpses of an "engine failure" panel light and then an uncontrolled dive and a plunging altimeter. In a stunning command decision, Washington's character rolls the plane over on its back. We see tumbling passengers and tossed luggage and finally a smoky crash landing in an empty field.

The scene stands as a breathtaking masterpiece of Hollywood's dream machine, but it pales in comparison with United Flight 232, a deadly real-life airline disaster that -- like the movie --- could have been much worse if not for remarkable efforts by heroic crew members.

Movie Pass: 'Flight'
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Denzel Washington hails real heroes
In "Flight," Denzel Washington plays a pilot at the center of a disastrous airplane malfunction. In "Flight," Denzel Washington plays a pilot at the center of a disastrous airplane malfunction.
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But first, is it possible to fly a commercial airliner upside down? Would excessive G-forces destroy it? That debate is raging right now on aviation Twitter feeds and websites.

In the film, the pilot rolls the plane over to keep it flying longer. He avoids crashing into a neighborhood, saving countless lives.

"Flight" director Robert Zemeckis, creator of the "Back to the Future" series, enjoyed a bit of artistic license here, said Larry Goodrich, the film's pilot consultant.

Goodrich, a 32-year pilot -- first with the Air Force, then with Delta Air Lines -- trained pilots to fly MD-88s, which the movie's plane most resembles.

During production, Goodrich said he reminded Zemeckis and Washington that "you can turn an airplane like this over, but it's not going to fly like this very long. It's gonna go down."

"He looked at me and he said, 'Can it fly upside down for a little bit?' I said, 'Yeah a little bit, but eventually you're gonna lose lift in the wings and you won't have the power to keep the airplane up.'"

"It's hard to do and the planes aren't built for it," said another veteran commercial airline pilot. "But when you're in that situation you'll do anything you can to save the airplane," said the pilot, who asked not to be named because he's not authorized by his airline to speak with the news media.

When asked about flying upside down, Boeing, which inherited the MD-80 series after its 1997 merger with McDonnell Douglas, issued a no-nonsense statement.

"The MD-80 cannot sustain inverted flight," the statement said. "The MD-80, as with all commercial airliners, was designed to fly upright. Commercial airliners are only tested and certified for upright flight."

Another thing that didn't ring true with Goodrich was the pilot leaving the cockpit during an emergency, as Washington's character did. Goodrich said he advised Zemeckis this scenario wasn't likely.

The interaction between Washington's character and the co-pilot rubbed commercial airline pilot and blogger Patrick Smith the wrong way.

"Washington's character is arrogant and flip and condescending and his co-pilot's character is meek and weak and at times even scared and clueless," said Smith. "This isn't how pilots behave. It reinforces the myth that the co-pilot is some sort of apprentice pilot."

The real deal

But as we all know, there's Hollywood -- and then there's the real deal.

As one commenter on airspacemag.com put it, "Hollywood could learn a lot from true life, i.e., United 232." That's because when it comes to a real life loss of airliner flight control, situations don't get much worse than Flight 232.

Al Haynes commanded the DC-10 that hot July day in 1989. The plane was about 75 miles north of Sioux City, Iowa, en route from Denver to Chicago with 11 crew and 285 passengers, when one of the plane's three engines failed. "There was a loud BANG," Haynes said. The bang, he said, "was followed by a large vibration lasting a few seconds."

There was a loud BANG.
Capt. Al Haynes, United Airlines Flight 232

The noise was the sound of a cracked engine fan disk shooting out of the tail engine and freakishly hitting in the worst possible spot. The disk severed all the plane's hydraulic lines, virtually cutting off all steering and speed control.

Read federal investigators' report on the crash (PDF)

For the next 45 minutes, Haynes, First Officer Bill Records, engineer Dudley Dvorak and instructor Dennis Fitch would need all their strength and good ideas to re-invent how to fly the DC-10.

But unlike the movie, flying upside down was not the solution to escaping this emergency.

"When the engine failed, the airplane started to turn to the right and started to roll," said Haynes. "If we had not stopped that and it had rolled over on its back, I'm sure the nose falling down would have increased the airspeed so fast that there's no way we could have controlled it."

"If we had gotten upside down, the party was over."

They learned how to steer the plane by adjusting the power in the aircraft's two remaining engines. It was like trying to drive a car without power steering, said Haynes, only harder.

The captain and Records struggled with the control wheel circling it steadily in right turn circles toward Sioux City airport. "It was very tiring," Haynes said. At the same time, Fitch struggled on his knees as he was forced to use both hands to muscle the plane's throttle levers, which also had become hard to move.

"I'll tell you what, we'll have a beer when this is all done," Fitch told Haynes, according to the flight recorder transcript. "Well, I don't drink," the captain replied, "but I'll sure as hell have one."

In the cabin, flight attendants worked to calm passengers and prepare them for a crash landing. "One passenger thought she was having a heart attack and the flight attendants calmed her down, and it turned out she wasn't having a heart attack, she was just very nervous," Haynes said.

As the plane neared the ground at a much-too-fast speed, passengers were warned to brace for impact. Video of the DC-10's fiery cartwheel landing was plastered across TV news channels for months after the disaster.

"The minute we hit the ground, I was knocked out," Haynes recalls. "I woke up in the cockpit talking to Dudley, I only remember bits and pieces of the conversation. I remember when the rescuers found us, someone asked, 'Are there really four of you in there?'"

One-hundred-ten passengers and one crew member -- flight attendant Rene Le Beau -- died in the crash. One-hundred-eighty-five passengers and crew survived.

In the months after the disaster, authorities recreated the emergency in flight simulators. But the simulator pilots were unable to maintain control of the plane all the way through to landing.

Sometimes life produces real events that rival Hollywood's wildest imaginations. That's what happened in 1989, when the crew of United Airlines Flight 232 achieved the nearly impossible.

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