Um, yeah. So some of you know that I'm training to be an air traffic controller; fairly obsessively as anyone who talks to me occasionally will attest. Happily for you poor saps, the training takes a long time. In fact, there is a reasonable chance that I will hit 30 before I control live traffic by myself.

I know a fair amount about how things work in this job, and rightly so. While the object of my derision here is set in another country and I will practice my trade in the UK, I feel confident that I know more about theirs than the ignorant troglodytes who produced this abominable heap of insulting garbage. This Dalai Llama of stupid films, this... subjugation of Kurt Wimmer's execrable legacy. It's not even funny. And that's not even rhetorical.

I am talking, of course, about the 1999 film Pushing Tin. John Cusack plays an air traffic controller at the New York TRACON, whose rather fragile ego cannot cope with the arrival of a controller better than him. Lots of 'wacky hijinks' ensue as they try to one-up each other. I get asked about this film by many people after I tell them my job, and I think I've remained fairly restrained in my assessment of it so far.

* * * * *

I really would like to avoid making this a festival of whiny nitpicking, so I will attempt to stick to the major transgressions.

The film's synth-rock opening, with a blas̩ quote from a New York ATCO preceding 'action' footage of takeoffs, airliners flying around stupidly close to one another (1000ft isn't very much, but it's a damn sight further than that) to a background of radio chatter and Рoh, oh! Credits like handwriting on flight progress strips! How clever! Рis an unabashed attempt to Top Gun air traffic control. Perhaps with slightly less homoeroticism.

“Yeah, look at these guys. They're air traffic controllers. They throw planes around the sky. They have thousands of lives in their hands, and they're nonchalant about it. They can like, sing and control planes at the same time. They're so cool. They can speak five thousand words per minute! Amazing!”


Where to start.

Well, there's no singing, that's for sure. Anyone who did would, at the very least I'm sure, get stuff thrown at them by their colleagues. Although you learn to tune out background noise, you still don't need more than is necessary when you're doing this job. I've spent hours plugged in in the ops room of the UK's largest en-route control centre, not to mention Heathrow and Birmingham Airport control towers and there's nothing above the quiet bustle of your average office. Certainly none of the larking about that happens almost constantly in PT's fictional ops room.

Oh, and actual radio communications? Again I'm learning, but you do adopt a fairly brisk gait in your delivery. Time on the radio frequency is fairly tight if you're busy so you don't want to tie it up for longer than necessary; that's why we've got so much prescribed phraseology for the things we tell planes to do. Some of those are loosened in the operational world – you have to know the rules before you can bend them – but some of the depictions in PT are simply absurd. Take this example from the first five minutes, which I'm sure took John Cusack days to memorize (line split to save your browser):


Say that again? That's the response I'd expect from a pilot if I spoke that fast and gave that many instructions in the same transmission. You're not going to save any time speaking fast if you end up having to repeat yourself. If pilots think you sound rushed or unsure of yourself their trust in you will be a little shaky.

There are also plenty of nonsensical instructions given to aircraft, like:

“turn left heading one-four-zero, maintain six”

“Maintain six”? Six what? Six wildebeests? Six fence posts, perhaps. Six cartons of tinned carrots. Actually I know exactly what the controller meant there, but when you consider all ATC transmissions are being recorded, it is a really really bad idea to give such an ambiguous instruction. And talking that fast when you order food? No, that's just stupid. Unless you are actively engaged in getting people to think you are a prick.

The way Billy Bob Thornton's character gets inducted into the place also gives short shrift to the actual process that occurs, to say the least. I don't know the particulars of the FAA way of doing things in that respect but there's no way, just no way it works like this. He arrives one day, plugs in with Cusack and within ten seconds has taken over. Um, no.

You don't just look at the blips and steer them away from each other. Gobs of information has to be learned by the controller about the airspace they will be working, before they work it. The locations and names of beacons and other navigation aids, airways, their base levels and vertical extents, sector boundary locations and level cutoff points, typical routes flown by aircraft passing through or into your sector, standing agreements with neighbouring sectors, approach and departure patterns, coordination procedures, emergency procedures... it goes on.

It's all in a book two to three inches thick, and you have to know most of it. Even after you do, you don't just get to work by yourself. You spend anywhere from six months to two years doing on-the-job training under constant supervision. Only after you pass all the assessments at the end of this are you allowed to work by yourself. No way, absolutely no way do you get to control the sector yourself, and subsequently be 'signed off on' (whatever that means) all on your first day. There's also no way you get to plug straight back in after having a 'deal' (this is apparently accurate jargon for having a loss of separation, though I've never heard it used over here). There'd be an investigation, possibly further action and at the very least some refresher training before you were allowed to work by yourself again. We don't take too many chances in ATC.

The little spot of bother Thornton gets himself into during his first session reminds me of something else that drives me nuts about this tripe: whenever something happens at PT's TRACON, like a controller putting two planes too close together – you know, as controllers are prone to do – and their STCA (short term conflict alert) alarm going off, all of the other controllers crowd around to watch. I assume all the aircraft that they were controlling just carry on working themselves, then? Maybe there is a clutch of reserve controllers waiting for just such a happenstence, who rush to fill the control positions that have just been vacated by the slack-jawed sheep who want the best ringside seat?

Next? Well, I can't really speak to the one-one-upmanship that goes on in the film, or the wife-swapping, though a bit of friendly rivalry is a healthy thing. There's certainly plenty of that going on at college and between different watches operationally. Such egos as are shown in PT would probably not make great controllers as they're out for themselves and ATC is a coordinated, team effort.

Finally, the one thing that has to be mentioned is the little 'wake turbulence' incident. There's a handy pipe in the last sentence for more about that, but what it boils down to is this: aircraft leave these swirling vortexes in the air behind them when they fly, which are stronger the larger the aircraft. They can quite easily flip over small aircraft that get caught in them. It's mentioned that Thornton's character stood at the end of a runway when a Boeing 747 was landing and got his 'hair parted' by the wake turbulence. There's a rather comical clip showing him getting flipped and bounced down the runway like a rubber chicken. Cusack and Thornton's characters do the same, together, towards the end of the film. Could this happen?

Well, let's leave aside the fact they wouldn't have even been able to get as far as the runway without being arrested (Cusack's earlier attempt to break into an airliner cockpit because he thought Thornton was going to make the plane crash would also have the same result, though it was played for laughs). Let's also leave aside that either the 747 pilot would have seen the two of them long before touching down and performed a go-around, or been instructed to do so by the tower. They are left aside.

Wake turbulence comes from an aircraft's wingtips, moving down and outwards. The two of them are standing under the fuselage of the aircraft when it goes over their heads. So that's out the window. That just leaves jet blast and while the 747 does have four engines, they're at close to idle when it's about to touch down and would probably knock the two of them over, at worst. I've stood at the end of runway 27/R at Heathrow, had 747s blow overhead at 200ft and felt nothing. Well, that's not strictly true, but you see the point.

My main problem with PT is there's far too much 'drama', 'humour' and nowhere near enough actual ATC, but that's rather a fringe complaint and besides, if there were more this writeup would probably just be longer.

* * * * *

I'm only a trainee air traffic controller. I'm not even sufficiently elevated to be a student controller yet. There is literally no-one lower in status in the company I work for, than someone with my job. The guy who cleans the toilets gets paid more than I do. However, I know what an insult to my profession this film is (though not the biggest, and I'm getting to that) and yet controllers somewhere, probably with decades of experience, were paid consultancy rates to keep these filmmakers honest. They failed spectacularly in their charge, or they were ignored. Either is a rather poor show.

Of course the phenomena of films that misrepresent their subject to a degree – particularly niche subjects like this - is nothing new; it's probably necessary in the interest of watchability. The first example that springs to mind is the way the film Thirteen Days plays up the importance of Kenneth O'Donnell during the Cuban Missile Crisis. A relative everyman for viewers to latch onto is preferable to trying to make characters in top positions of power sympathetic, when the filmmakers don't have the luxury of extended character development afforded the creators of television series like The West Wing.

What fails to exonerate this particular travesty is that the various lies it pervades don't even make the film good. But even if they did, why make a film about ATC if you're going to pay lip service to the fundamentals of what makes it? I wouldn't expect a film about ATC to be dead-on accurate, certainly not one with the typical Hollywood budget that wants to at least break even, but have some respect for the people who are actually interested in it and have made their livelihoods out of it. There aren't many controllers and there's a reason for that; if you never hear about them it means they're doing a good job, so the occasional nod of recognition never hurts. Maybe air traffic control wouldn't make a good film; it's a hypothesis I certainly make room for. The job is far from being everyone's cup of tea. I've known people quit who were good at it.

Terrible as PT is, though (and not just because it's an inaccurate portrayal of ATC), I should give it some credit. While the procedures it demonstrates are generally arse, its terminology is reasonable overall. Ground Control on the other hand, a 1998 TV movie about ATC, is far worse. But at least it's funny.

Before I show you the smoking gun, a tiny lesson in aviation: aircraft measure how high they are by comparing the air pressure outside against the air pressure at ground or sea level. So they need to know what that 'reference' pressure is to get an accurate reading of their altitude. Since air pressure changes with time and distance, jetliners that fly thousands of miles at 500mph would have a rather inconvenient time constantly requesting the reference pressure as they fly through different areas so they use a standard, fixed reference above a certain level. Pilots and ATC refer then not to the aircraft's 'altitude' but to its 'flight level', which is expressed in thousands of feet, with the last two digits removed. Flight Level 200 is about twenty thousand feet.

So I remember the moment in Ground Control, when Kiefer Sutherland utters this classic:

“Climb and maintain flight level six-zero-zero-zero”

O-ho, right. Sure. Okay, fine. Climb to six hundred thousand feet? Yeah, good luck with that. Let me know how the ISS is doing, the pilots should be able to give them a yell from one hundred and thirteen miles up. Maybe we can get some Delta Captains to help out with the fucking space elevator while they're up there. Collar a nearby asteroid. Jesus.

-HateQuest 2007

spiregrain says re Pushing Tin: my favourite bit of PT is the utter contempt the controllers have for pilots, mocking them with the schoolboy-spastic mock-face and saying "duuuh, I fly planes". Any truth to this?
archiewood says Oh yeah, that's totally realistic. Don't trust pilots are far as we can throw 'em.
spiregrain says phew, pleased to hear it
Swap says re Pushing Tin: Hey! I've got pilots in my family! You betta reconize, asshole!