MOVIE REVIEW. NBC's made-for TV movie (Sunday, January 4th at 9-11 pm) depicts a plausible scenario in which an ATC computer glitch results in the collision of a passenger jet and a cargo plane, destroying both aircraft and killing 185 people, and the NTSB investigation and attempted coverup by FAA management that follows. The involvement of two working air traffic controllers and NATCA members as technical advisors to this production is obvious in the spot-on pilot/controller phraseology and the accurate portrayal of ATC procedures and data blocks. But in the aftermath of the crash (which occurs about 15 minutes into the two-hour show), the plot quickly degenerates from the plausible to the absurd, and "Blackout Effect" becomes just another disaster movie designed to capture the attention of the public and prey on widespread fears of flying. What a missed opportunity.
January 2, 1998
NBC's two-hour made-for-TV movie Blackout Effect stars Eric
Stoltz as a dedicated young NTSB investigator, and costars veteran character actor Charles
Martin Smith as an eccentric and emotional air traffic controller.
The show starts out very promisingly with lots of
quick sequences intercut between airline cockpits and an ARTCC dubbed "Midwest
Center" located in Illinois. (Can you spell ZAU?) Unlike most aviation movies I've
seen (especially the made-for-TV variety), the pilot/controller phraseology is 100%
spot-on. Technical Advisor Bob Marks (a controller who used to work at Los Angeles Center
and now works Southern California Tracon) did a superb job as dialogue coach.
The movie includes lots of close-up shots of Midwest Center's radar displays, too. The
displays shown are a whole lot prettier than the ones that ARTCC controllers actually use
today they are in color, not just monochrome green, and the airplanes are represented
by little airplane-like icons oriented with the proper heading, rather than just slashes
or triangles or squares but the data tags are accurately portrayed. Controller Chris
Coons was technical advisor to the software firm that created the simulated displays. The
producers must have determined (correctly, I suspect) that shots of an actual monochrome
ARTCC Plan View Display (PVD) would be indecipherable to the general public, and decided
to enhance the displays just enough (with color and little airplane icons) to make them
understandable. That's a fair application of artistic license, and I think they did a good
Eight minutes into the movie, veteran controller Henry
Drake (played by Charles Martin Smith) is on-position working ten aircraft. He has just
accepted a handoff of "Global 1025" an ORD-bound 757 level at FL260 from
the controller working the adjacent scope, and tells Global to expect descent clearance in
four minutes. Shortly afterward, Drake clears a cargo jet "PDO 342" to climb
from FL210 to FL280.
A minute later, Drake's PVD blacks out for a couple of seconds. No other scopes in the
facility are affected, but when Henry's PVD lights up again, the data block for the PDO
cargo flight he was working doesn't reappear. Drake starts complaining loudly about his
PVD, saying he'd been reporting intermittent problems with that scope for months, that
he'd already filed two formal Unsatisfactory Condition Reports on it, and would now be
filing yet another one.
Meantime, Global 1025 has encountered moderate-to-severe turbulence at FL260 and asks
first for higher, then for lower. Drake responds "negative" to both requests,
saying that he has conflicting traffic both above and below Global's altitude.
As Drake is hollering about his forthcoming UCR, the controller at the adjacent scope
warns Drake that the PDO cargo flight is climbing into the path of an opposite direction
pax-carrying Global 757 level at FL260. Drake protests he doesn't see the cargo flight. He
tries to contact PDO by radio, but gets no response.
Meantime, the Global crew gets a TCAS alert "traffic, traffic" and then a RA
"traffic, descend." The 757 pilot reports this to Drake, who instructs the pilot
not to descend because of conflicting traffic below. As the two controllers are arguing
over the traffic conflict between Global and PDO, which Drake can't see but his colleague
can, and while Global is hollering for lower, the target and data block for the PDO cargo
flight suddenly reappear on Drake's PVD, and he sees that the two flights are on collision
courses and seconds away from merging.
Drake tells Global to "descend immediately" but it's too late. Both targets
go into "coast" status for several sweeps (a nice touch of accuracy), turn red
(a bit of dramatic license), pass through each other at FL260, and then disappear from the
scope. Repeated radio calls to Global and PDO go unanswered. A devastated Drake is
immediately taken off position, sent to the conference room and asked to write his
The investigation begins
NTSB Investigator John Dantley (played by Eric Stoltz)
is assigned as leader of the go-team to investigate the crash. He helicopters and hikes to
the Global 1025 crash site, sees the compulsory smoking wreckage, counts the 185 body
bags, sees children's toys in the charred cabin, makes the obligatory comments about never
getting used to the stench of burning flesh at crash sites, refuses to speculate about the
cause of the crash to reporters, etc.
Meantime, Frank Wyatt, the FAA facility chief of Midwest Center (well played by
character actor Denis Arndt), considers Henry Drake a total pain in the ass because of his
union activism, constant complaints and filing of UCRs, and has been looking for an excuse
to fire him for five years. Wyatt starts taking immediate steps to blame the accident on
an operational error by Drake, and to put him on the beach.
So far, at about 20 minutes into the two-hour movie, the story line seemed plausible
to me and the technical accuracy impressive. I was all ready to give this movie two thumbs
up. But then things started going downhill. Rapidly. My advice: grab for the TV remote
about this point and check what's on ABC, CBS, Fox and PBS.
Gratuitous and implausible
Turns out John Dantley was dating a flight attendant
who was on the doomed Global flight. Turns out the FA was pregnant, apparently with
Dantley's child, and had boarded the Global flight in order to see Dantley in DC that
weekend to tell him about it. Dantley tells his NTSB boss that he was dating one of the
FA's on the Global flight, and the boss asks Dantley to recuse himself and let another
investigator take over. Dantley protests, insisting that he can investigate the accident
with total objectivity, and is allowed to stay on as lead investigator. This struck me as
a gratuitous and unnecessary sub-plot that would never happen.
To make matters worse, it turns out that Dantley is good drinking buddies with Midwest
Center facility chief Frank Wyatt, and asks Wyatt to join the investigation. Of course,
Wyatt (an archetypal FAA management bad guy) has already made up his mind that Henry
Drake's operational error caused the collision, so he brings added objectivity to the
investigating team. Jim Hall's gonna just love this.
Yet another gratuitous and incredible sub-plot involved a developmental controller
(referred to only as "The Rookie") who had been working the D-side (shuffling
flight strips and fetching coffee) for the FPL controllers at Midwest Center at the
beginning of the movie, and was about to work a scope for the first time. Rookie is so
nervous about his first day working traffic that he is shown puking in the men's room just
before his shift starts. Yet there he is, on-position at the PVD, working a busy sector
all alone without any senior controller plugged in and watching him! This would never
happen in real life, but how many of the white-knucklers in the flying public who view
this movie will know that?
Naturally, right at this point, the power for the entire Midwest Center goes out for
five or ten minutes. Every controller races for a telephone to call adjacent tracons and
towers to tell them that the ARTCC is deaf, dumb and blind, and to brief them on the
traffic picture in the controller's head at the time the power went out. Rookie races all
over the facility and can't find a free phone. Apparently, there are only four telephones
in all of Midwest Center, and three of them are pay phones! (Give me a break.)
Rookie finally dashes outside, literally jumps the security guard at the guard shack at
the parking lot entrance, and uses his phone to call a control tower and give them his
traffic briefing. Naturally, this heroic act averts another head-on collision by seconds.
(Where's the men's room?)
Shortly thereafter, Wyatt is seen on the TV news, saying stuff like "this was
basically a non-event, the system worked, at no time was public safety compromised,"
yadda yadda yadda.
This facility-wide blackout scenario was clearly modeled after the August 1995 Oakland
Center blackout, except that there were a whole lot more telephones at ZOA, not to mention
that most controllers carry beepers and cellphones nowadays. Oh well, that's Hollywood.
It gets worse...much worse
Meantime, Henry Drake turns out to be a mad-genius
electrical engineer, and starts working at home on a secret ray gun that can be aimed from
afar at a piece of electronic equipment and blast it to smithereens with HERF
(high-engergy radio frequencies). At one point, we see Henry shopping for ray gun
components at a local Radio Shack. (I'm not making this up!) You see, Drake finally
concludes that nobody at FAA is taking his complaints about the system being unsafe
seriously, so he decides to dramatize the system's vulnerability. He tests his
newly-assembled ray gun first by zapping a TV set, then later by firing at an airport
control tower and frying all the equipment in the tower cab.
Dantley starts investigating the blackout at Midwest
Center to see if it could have any connection with the earlier midair. He finds no
connection, but while at the ARTCC Dantley interviews a nervous Rookie and discovers that
he had been a maintenance tech at Midwest Center before he started training to be a
controller. Dantley asks Rookie whether he knows of anything that could go wrong with a
PVD that would make a data block disappear. Rookie says yes, an overheated character
generator board could do that. (Baloney: if the character generator went out, all the data
blocks would go away, not just one.) What could make a character generator overheat like
that? A failed cooling fan, theorizes Rookie.
Dantley and Rookie trot down to the basement to have a look at the PVD that Henry Drake
had been using when the collision occurred. Rookie yanks the character generator board,
bristling with vacuum tubes, and makes the obligatory remarks about the FAA being the
world's biggest (or perhaps only) consumer of vacuum tubes, and that the PVDs are
1950's-vintage designs. ("How old is this scope?" Dantley asks. "Older than
you," replies Rookie.)
The character generator and all the rest of the guts of the PVD are covered with dust,
and the power cord to the cooling fan has traces of soot left by arcing. But the cooling
fan itself is suspiciously spotless, suggesting that it had been replaced very recently.
Rookie writes down the serial number of the fan. Dantley obtains the ARTCC's maintenance
log but finds no record of the fan having been replaced. Dantley also checks on Henry
Drake's prior UCRs, and finds that the FAA has no record of the two UCRs Drake claims to
have submitted on that PVD in the last two months.
And the thot plickens...
Analysis of the maintenance log under ultraviolet light reveals that two of the PVD
maintenance entries have been altered. Dantley is now convinced that Drake was telling the
truth, that his PVD failed, and that there's a giant conspiracy to pin the blame on Drake
rather than on the equipment.
Dantley confronts Wyatt, says he has proof that it was equipment failure that caused
the collision, not an operational error, accuses Wyatt of covering up known deficiencies
in the equipment at Midwest Center, and asks him why he did it. "It's what we
do," replies Wyatt. Heavy stuff.
But, difficult as this may be to believe, the worst is yet to come.
Drake, who by now has been fired from Midwest Center,
dials his modem into the ARTCC security system and creates a fictitious maintenance person
named "Jim Hale" on the security roster. Drake proceeds to disguise himself with
fake moustache and goatee (skillfully creating the illusion of being Charles Martin Smith
wearing a fake moustache and goatee) and uses a fake ID to talk his way past security and
enter Midwest Center, posing as the phoney maintenance man he created and pushing a dolly
stacked with large cartons of equipment. Drake heads for the basement, and starts setting
up his ray gun (sigh!) with the intention of blasting the Midwest Center host computer to
smithereens. It's the day before Thanksgiving, of course, and the system is approaching
maximum capacity. Drake uses his laptop to get on the Internet and send a threatening
e-mail to Dantley saying "shut down the system now or I'll shut it down for
Dantley receives Drake's e-note, races to the Center, finds Drake in the basement
hooking up his ray gun. As you might have guessed, Drake also has about ten sticks of
dynamite hooked to a dead-man switch. In an emotion-charged scene (which I missed because
I was off puking in the men's room), Dantley persuades the innocent-but-deranged Drake not
to fire the ray gun or blow up the dynamite.
Dissolve to quick sequences of numerous airliners taking off and landing, with
voiceovers of rapid-fire dialogue between airline cockpits and Midwest Center controllers
(with 100% spot-on pilot/controller phraseology). The American flying public has an
uneventful Thanksgiving travel season. The system works, vacuum tubes and all. Public
safety was never in jeopardy. Fade to black.
Truth vs. ratings?
network television executives seem to have an insatiable appetite for disaster movies
designed to capture the attention of the public and prey on widespread fears. I don't mind
so much when these flicks depict fires, earthquakes, tornadoes, or infectious diseases.
But it really bugs me to see a movie created for the express purpose of frightening the
public about aviation, particularly one that uses large doses of fiction and hyperbole to
accomplish that end.
Everyone in aviation knows that today's ATC system has big problems, involving frequent
outages of obsolete and aging equipment and increasing hostility between rank-and-file
controllers and FAA management. These problems are certainly an appropriate issue for
public debate. They are a suitable subject for TV documentary or newsmagazine treatment.
They might even be appropriate as the subject of a fact-based "entertainment"
But what purpose is served by interweaving the factual problems of the ATC system with
large doses of implausible fiction? Yes, we do have ancient vacuum-tube equipment that
fails a lot and is nearly unmaintainable. Yes, FAA management is constantly engaged in
P.R. and spin control to convince everyone (especially Congress) that everything is just
fine and safety is never jeopardized, while NATCA wages an escalating war of words to
scare the hell out of the flying public.
But surely no one not the FAA, not NATCA believes that the ATC system is
threatened by certifiably crazy ex-controllers dressing up in disguises and blowing up
equipment with homebrew ray guns and dynamite, nor that developmental controllers are
allowed to work traffic without supervision, nor that the NTSB assigns lead investigators
with even the faintest appearance of conflict-of-interest. Why did the producers of this
movie feel it necessary to add these fictitious elements to what might otherwise have been
a very well-done show?
How are non-aviation-savvy viewers expected to sort out what's true here and what's
not? Non-aviators are frightened enough when they are presented with a truthful and
balanced report on the state of the National Airspace System, because the truth isn't
exactly pretty. I'm sure that the NATCA folks who were involved as technical advisors to
this production were hoping NBC's airing of Blackout Effect would help raise
public awareness of the equipment and management problems faced by controllers today.
But in the end, I'm not sure the movie's portrayal of "Henry Drake, whacko
controller" helps NATCA's cause much. Blackout Effect tars almost everyone
involved FAA, NATCA, NTSB with a very broad brush. Only the air carriers and pilots
are spared in this movie...and I imagine they'll be the subject of NBC's next made-for-TV