AVweb Reviews NBC's Blackout Effect

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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.

Review 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.

Stoltz & SmithThe 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 job here.

Collision scenario

Henry DrakeEight 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 statement.

The investigation begins

John DantleyNTSB 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

John DantleyTurns 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

Henry DrakeMeantime, 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.

John DantleyDantley 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.

"Jim Hale"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 you."

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?

Ratings-hungry 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" production.

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 disaster flick.