AVweb Reviews NBC’s Blackout Effect

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.

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Review NBC’s two-hour made-for-TV movie Blackout Effect stars EricStoltz as a dedicated young NTSB investigator, and costars veteran character actor CharlesMartin Smith as an eccentric and emotional air traffic controller.

Stoltz & SmithThe show starts out very promisingly with lots ofquick sequences intercut between airline cockpits and an ARTCC dubbed "MidwestCenter" located in Illinois. (Can you spell ZAU?) Unlike most aviation movies I’veseen (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 Centerand 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. Thedisplays shown are a whole lot prettier than the ones that ARTCC controllers actually usetoday — they are in color, not just monochrome green, and the airplanes are representedby little airplane-like icons oriented with the proper heading, rather than just slashesor triangles or squares — but the data tags are accurately portrayed. Controller ChrisCoons was technical advisor to the software firm that created the simulated displays. Theproducers must have determined (correctly, I suspect) that shots of an actual monochromeARTCC Plan View Display (PVD) would be indecipherable to the general public, and decidedto enhance the displays just enough (with color and little airplane icons) to make themunderstandable. That’s a fair application of artistic license, and I think they did a goodjob here.

Collision scenario

Henry DrakeEight minutes into the movie, veteran controller HenryDrake (played by Charles Martin Smith) is on-position working ten aircraft. He has justaccepted a handoff of "Global 1025" — an ORD-bound 757 level at FL260 — fromthe controller working the adjacent scope, and tells Global to expect descent clearance infour minutes. Shortly afterward, Drake clears a cargo jet "PDO 342" to climbfrom FL210 to FL280.

A minute later, Drake’s PVD blacks out for a couple of seconds. No other scopes in thefacility are affected, but when Henry’s PVD lights up again, the data block for the PDOcargo flight he was working doesn’t reappear. Drake starts complaining loudly about hisPVD, saying he’d been reporting intermittent problems with that scope for months, thathe’d already filed two formal Unsatisfactory Condition Reports on it, and would now befiling yet another one.

Meantime, Global 1025 has encountered moderate-to-severe turbulence at FL260 and asksfirst 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 scopewarns Drake that the PDO cargo flight is climbing into the path of an opposite directionpax-carrying Global 757 level at FL260. Drake protests he doesn’t see the cargo flight. Hetries 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 pilotnot to descend because of conflicting traffic below. As the two controllers are arguingover the traffic conflict between Global and PDO, which Drake can’t see but his colleaguecan, and while Global is hollering for lower, the target and data block for the PDO cargoflight suddenly reappear on Drake’s PVD, and he sees that the two flights are on collisioncourses and seconds away from merging.

Drake tells Global to "descend immediately" but it’s too late. Both targetsgo 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 thescope. Repeated radio calls to Global and PDO go unanswered. A devastated Drake isimmediately taken off position, sent to the conference room and asked to write hisstatement.

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 tothe Global 1025 crash site, sees the compulsory smoking wreckage, counts the 185 bodybags, sees children’s toys in the charred cabin, makes the obligatory comments about nevergetting used to the stench of burning flesh at crash sites, refuses to speculate about thecause of the crash to reporters, etc.

Meantime, Frank Wyatt, the FAA facility chief of Midwest Center (well played bycharacter actor Denis Arndt), considers Henry Drake a total pain in the ass because of hisunion activism, constant complaints and filing of UCRs, and has been looking for an excuseto fire him for five years. Wyatt starts taking immediate steps to blame the accident onan 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 attendantwho was on the doomed Global flight. Turns out the FA was pregnant, apparently withDantley’s child, and had boarded the Global flight in order to see Dantley in DC thatweekend to tell him about it. Dantley tells his NTSB boss that he was dating one of theFA’s on the Global flight, and the boss asks Dantley to recuse himself and let anotherinvestigator take over. Dantley protests, insisting that he can investigate the accidentwith total objectivity, and is allowed to stay on as lead investigator. This struck me asa gratuitous and unnecessary sub-plot that would never happen.

To make matters worse, it turns out that Dantley is good drinking buddies with MidwestCenter 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 HenryDrake’s operational error caused the collision, so he brings added objectivity to theinvestigating 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 (shufflingflight strips and fetching coffee) for the FPL controllers at Midwest Center at thebeginning of the movie, and was about to work a scope for the first time. Rookie is sonervous about his first day working traffic that he is shown puking in the men’s room justbefore his shift starts. Yet there he is, on-position at the PVD, working a busy sectorall alone without any senior controller plugged in and watching him! This would neverhappen in real life, but how many of the white-knucklers in the flying public who viewthis movie will know that?

Naturally, right at this point, the power for the entire Midwest Center goes out forfive or ten minutes. Every controller races for a telephone to call adjacent tracons andtowers to tell them that the ARTCC is deaf, dumb and blind, and to brief them on thetraffic picture in the controller’s head at the time the power went out. Rookie races allover the facility and can’t find a free phone. Apparently, there are only four telephonesin 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 atthe parking lot entrance, and uses his phone to call a control tower and give them histraffic 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 wasbasically 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 OaklandCenter blackout, except that there were a whole lot more telephones at ZOA, not to mentionthat 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-geniuselectrical engineer, and starts working at home on a secret ray gun that can be aimed fromafar 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 guncomponents at a local Radio Shack. (I’m not making this up!) You see, Drake finallyconcludes that nobody at FAA is taking his complaints about the system being unsafeseriously, so he decides to dramatize the system’s vulnerability. He tests hisnewly-assembled ray gun first by zapping a TV set, then later by firing at an airportcontrol tower and frying all the equipment in the tower cab.

John DantleyDantley starts investigating the blackout at MidwestCenter to see if it could have any connection with the earlier midair. He finds noconnection, but while at the ARTCC Dantley interviews a nervous Rookie and discovers thathe had been a maintenance tech at Midwest Center before he started training to be acontroller. Dantley asks Rookie whether he knows of anything that could go wrong with aPVD that would make a data block disappear. Rookie says yes, an overheated charactergenerator board could do that. (Baloney: if the character generator went out, all the datablocks would go away, not just one.) What could make a character generator overheat likethat? A failed cooling fan, theorizes Rookie.

Dantley and Rookie trot down to the basement to have a look at the PVD that Henry Drakehad 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 theworld’s biggest (or perhaps only) consumer of vacuum tubes, and that the PVDs are1950’s-vintage designs. ("How old is this scope?" Dantley asks. "Older thanyou," 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 coolingfan 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 maintenancelog but finds no record of the fan having been replaced. Dantley also checks on HenryDrake’s prior UCRs, and finds that the FAA has no record of the two UCRs Drake claims tohave 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 PVDmaintenance entries have been altered. Dantley is now convinced that Drake was telling thetruth, that his PVD failed, and that there’s a giant conspiracy to pin the blame on Drakerather than on the equipment.

Dantley confronts Wyatt, says he has proof that it was equipment failure that causedthe collision, not an operational error, accuses Wyatt of covering up known deficienciesin the equipment at Midwest Center, and asks him why he did it. "It’s what wedo," 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 personnamed "Jim Hale" on the security roster. Drake proceeds to disguise himself withfake moustache and goatee (skillfully creating the illusion of being Charles Martin Smithwearing a fake moustache and goatee) and uses a fake ID to talk his way past security andenter Midwest Center, posing as the phoney maintenance man he created and pushing a dollystacked with large cartons of equipment. Drake heads for the basement, and starts settingup his ray gun (sigh!) with the intention of blasting the Midwest Center host computer tosmithereens. It’s the day before Thanksgiving, of course, and the system is approachingmaximum capacity. Drake uses his laptop to get on the Internet and send a threateninge-mail to Dantley saying "shut down the system now or I’ll shut it down foryou."

Dantley receives Drake’s e-note, races to the Center, finds Drake in the basementhooking up his ray gun. As you might have guessed, Drake also has about ten sticks ofdynamite hooked to a dead-man switch. In an emotion-charged scene (which I missed becauseI was off puking in the men’s room), Dantley persuades the innocent-but-deranged Drake notto fire the ray gun or blow up the dynamite.

Dissolve to quick sequences of numerous airliners taking off and landing, withvoiceovers of rapid-fire dialogue between airline cockpits and Midwest Center controllers(with 100% spot-on pilot/controller phraseology). The American flying public has anuneventful Thanksgiving travel season. The system works, vacuum tubes and all. Publicsafety was never in jeopardy. Fade to black.


Truth vs. ratings?

Ratings-hungrynetwork television executives seem to have an insatiable appetite for disaster moviesdesigned to capture the attention of the public and prey on widespread fears. I don’t mindso 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 thepublic about aviation, particularly one that uses large doses of fiction and hyperbole toaccomplish that end.

Everyone in aviation knows that today’s ATC system has big problems, involving frequentoutages of obsolete and aging equipment and increasing hostility between rank-and-filecontrollers and FAA management. These problems are certainly an appropriate issue forpublic 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 withlarge doses of implausible fiction? Yes, we do have ancient vacuum-tube equipment thatfails a lot and is nearly unmaintainable. Yes, FAA management is constantly engaged inP.R. and spin control to convince everyone (especially Congress) that everything is justfine and safety is never jeopardized, while NATCA wages an escalating war of words toscare the hell out of the flying public.

But surely no one — not the FAA, not NATCA — believes that the ATC system isthreatened by certifiably crazy ex-controllers dressing up in disguises and blowing upequipment with homebrew ray guns and dynamite, nor that developmental controllers areallowed to work traffic without supervision, nor that the NTSB assigns lead investigatorswith even the faintest appearance of conflict-of-interest. Why did the producers of thismovie feel it necessary to add these fictitious elements to what might otherwise have beena very well-done show?

How are non-aviation-savvy viewers expected to sort out what’s true here and what’snot? Non-aviators are frightened enough when they are presented with a truthful andbalanced report on the state of the National Airspace System, because the truth isn’texactly pretty. I’m sure that the NATCA folks who were involved as technical advisors tothis production were hoping NBC’s airing of Blackout Effect would help raisepublic 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, whackocontroller" helps NATCA’s cause much. Blackout Effect tars almost everyoneinvolved — FAA, NATCA, NTSB — with a very broad brush. Only the air carriers and pilotsare spared in this movie…and I imagine they’ll be the subject of NBC’s next made-for-TVdisaster flick.