10 Things Hollywood Gets Wrong About Aviation

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Hollywood is certainly not known for realism. Action movies often feature heroes and heroines capable of dodging bullets, surviving explosions that should shred their internal organs to pulp, and leaving car crashes that would more than likely leave any normal person a paraplegic with nothing more than scrapes and bruises. 

But of all the things that Hollywood gets wrong, their portrayal of aviation in films is probably the worst culprit. From stowing away inside landing gear, mismatched exterior and interior shots, to turbulence and engine failure, here are 10 things that Hollywood gets wrong about aviation.

10. Long Distance Fighter Jet: Wonder Woman 1984 

Wonder Woman 1984 was a trainwreck in many ways, but one of the most talked about issues with the film is how Steve Trevor flies Wonder Woman to Cairo on one tank of fuel in an ’80s era fighter jet. 

This just isn’t possible. 

Modern fighter jets aren’t capable of traveling from Washington DC to Cairo without refueling. Steve and Diana would have plummeted into the Atlantic Ocean somewhere along the way.

In addition to this, it takes years of training to learn to pilot a fighter jet like the one they present in the film (which is apparently based on the British Tornado strike jet), and someone who died in World War I would never have been able to pilot it without any experience.

Fully fueled jets are also not left unguarded at museums, just waiting for a couple of thieves to hijack them. 

9. Engine Failure Myth

Many films utilize engine failure on commercial flights to facilitate action and drama, but according to one pilot, even a single engine aircraft can survive such an engine failure by gliding into a landing. Commercial airliners with more than one engine are more than capable of safely reaching their destination with only one engine running. They’re designed with this eventuality in mind. 

In multiple engine planes, a single engine must have enough power to get the plane to its destination safely. And in cases where a plane loses an engine, and the remaining one begins to push the plane in the wrong direction, the rudders and ailerons are designed to counteract this effect. 

If this safety measure wasn’t built into commercial airliners, a scenario like this would risk the airplane rolling over in midair, which would cause the pilot to lose control of the aircraft.

In fact, passenger jets can travel up to 60 miles without their engines before being forced to land. 

8. Turbulence

Hollywood films love to use turbulence as a means to a cheap thrill, in most cases causing the lights in the cabin to flicker or darken entirely and oxygen masks to drop out of their hiding places above every passenger’s seat.

The truth is turbulence is a very normal cost of flight. The Earth’s atmosphere is not uniform, there are many variations in airspeed, direction, and air density. Some pilots like to compare our atmosphere to water, and like the ocean there will be pockets of air where it’s moving in different directions, kind of like driving a boat on a choppy body of water.

Airplanes are stress tested to handle 150% of the maximum amount of stress they would encounter here on Earth. 

7. Air Pressure and Damage

Movies like Air Force One and Final Destination have popularized the idea that if enough damage is done to a plane to cause a hole to open up (or if the door is ripped off) the pressurized cabin’s air will get sucked out of the plane as if the atmosphere outside the plane is acting like a black hole, threatening to suck everything out that isn’t strapped in or bolted down.

While it is certainly true that the pressure outside the plane is lower than inside the plane, there isn’t enough of a difference to cause the vacuum effect that is so popular in Hollywood films. In fact, after the initial rush of air, the pressure would equalize rapidly. 

But, let’s be honest, adhering to realism in this case might make every scene where Superman rips off the cabin door to a commercial airliner in order to save Lois Lane quite a bit less exciting

6. Airplane Doors Opening in Mid Flight

It is absolutely impossible for a human being to open an airplane door at 30,000 feet, despite what Hollywood would like you to believe. This is due to the pressure difference between the outside of the plane and the interior. For a person to be able to open an airplane door while it’s in flight, they would need to be able to exert enough force to move 24,000 pounds of pressure.

In addition to this, doors on commercial airliners use a plug system that automatically seals the door before take off. 

Even at lower altitudes, the pressure is too great for a passenger (no matter how strong they might be) to open the door, equating to about 1,100 pounds of pressure against each square foot of the door

Frankly, if you really wanted to open something on an airplane, engineers point out that the windows are a better target than the door. 


5. Lightning Blows Planes Up

Contrary to popular belief, commercial airlines are estimated to be struck by lightning at least once per year. Since the disaster of PanAm Boeing 707 in 1962, which involved a lightning strike causing a fuel tank to explode, all aircraft going forward have been designed with surviving a lightning strike in mind. 

Now, though passengers aboard a commercial airline may see a brief flash and hear a loud booming sound, and this would certainly be startling, they’d experience little else. This is because airplanes are now designed to allow the plane to become part of the lightning bolt’s path to ground level.  

The lightning bolt will often attach to one of the plane’s extremities, such as the nose or wing tip, and as the plane flies through the flash, it becomes part of the electric circuit between the lightning bolt and the clouds with opposite polarity, and the current travels through the plane’s exterior “skin” before leaving the aircraft from another structure or point on the body. Because of this design, it is extremely unlikely for a lightning strike to fry electrical systems or cause a spark in one of the fuel tanks, though pilots do occasionally report screens and lights flickering. 

After a plane has been struck by lightning, it must be thoroughly inspected for damage before it’s cleared for re-entering service. This includes examining the plane’s electrical systems, wiring, and fuel tanks. Once the damage is identified, it’s repaired and the plane is then allowed to fly again.

4. Airplane Fuel as a Ticking Time Bomb

Jet fuel, at least the type used in commercial airlines around the world (called JET-A1 or JP-1A) gives off very little vapor. As a result of this property, it doesn’t ignite very easily and has a flash point above 38 degrees Celsius. 

While jet fuel is unlikely to form dangerous air-fuel mixtures or combust unsafely, that hasn’t stopped Hollywood from using it as a plot device. One of the best examples of this is the ending of Die Hard 2 (er, spoilers?). 

When John McClane loses a brawl with the movie’s villain on top of the wing of a commercial airliner, he falls, but not before ripping open the fuel line. Moments later, he lands in the snow-covered runway as the plane leaves a trail of fuel in its wake. McClane whips out a lighter, utters his catch phrase, and lights the fuel, blowing the airline and the bad guys up. 

If the film had consulted a real pilot, they might have learned that jet fuel is so flame resistant that you could potentially use it to douse a match. 

The bad guys would have gotten away…or the fuel leak would have forced them to land prematurely. Either way, John McClane would have had some serious explaining to do to his boss back in LA.

3. Autopilot Failure 

In the 2001 movie Cabin Pressure, the airline’s automated system is hacked, and the crew loses access to any of the plane’s controls. However, in reality, the over-reliance on automation is more likely to lead to errors than the failure of these systems would. 

 The Federal Aviation Administration in the US estimates that most pilots rely on autopilot systems almost 90% of the time, but some insurance companies would like to see this practice stop, fearing that pilots are losing their ability to fly manually. The July 2013 crash of Asiana Airlines flight 214 has heightened this concern, showing that pilots who rely too heavily on autopilot can make errors when confronted with a major problem and attempting to switch from autopilot to hand-flying.

In fact, since 2019, the FAA has reworked their manual flight simulator requirements for pilots to alleviate this concern. So it’s incredibly unlikely that autopilot failure would lead to a crash.

2. No, You Cannot Stow Away Inside Landing Gear

This is a common trope in action films, where the hero narrowly manages to get aboard the plane by climbing up on its landing gear, but if you’re feeling inspired to take the same risk, hold that thought, because you are almost certain to wind up freezing or plummeting to your death. 

According to the Federal Aviation Administration, 77% of the people who try to hide away in the wheel wells of commercial airlines don’t survive. 

In fact, in 2019, CNN reported that a man plummeted into a rooftop garden one Sunday afternoon after sneaking into the landing gear of a plane. 

In addition to the risk of falling or freezing to death, there’s also very little room for a person to hide within the wheel wells of commercial airlines, and if the person sneaking aboard doesn’t know just the right position to take, they could end up being crushed. The hydraulic components inside a commercial airline carry a hydraulic pressure of 3,000 PSI, meaning that they are more than capable of turning someone into a flattened human meat patty. 

1. Same Plane, Different Interior

Hollywood loves to trick us with exterior shots of one plane, only to show us the interior of another, completely different plane, usually one that doesn’t match the same width and specs of the exterior shot. This is apparently a huge pet peeve of pilots and thousands of aeronautical buffs around the world. 

In the 2011 film Bridesmaids, the interior shots of one scene shows the characters onboard a wwide-bodydouble aisle jet, but when the film cuts to a shot of the plane on the runway, it’s a single-aisle Boeing 757. 

In the 2009 film Up in the Air, George Clooney is shown in one shot sitting in a big lie-flat-styled chair on an American Airlines plane in one shot, but when the plane lands, it’s an MD-88 jet with a single aisle. Single-aisle M-88 jets don’t have those kinds of seats.

In Home Alone 2: Lost in New York, some interior scenes are filmed inside a wide-bodied 747 jet, but when the jet reverses from the gate, we see a luxury liner Boeing 767 instead. 

There are countless other examples of mixing and matching airplane types in films, and while most moviegoers don’t notice these mistakes, disgruntled pilots and thousands of moviegoers around the world apparently do.


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2 Comments

  1. The worst interior/exterior shots are when the passengers can fully stand up and there are large seats but the aircraft is shown to be a small Lear Jet, et al.

    • That sounds like such an easy thing get right, doesn’t it? Someone is really hoping that people who know planes aren’t paying that much attention, like medical dramas using wrong machines or tools.

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