Article: You Gotta Keep 'Em Separated: Air Traffic Control in Film

Though I love writing film reviews as a hobby, alas, it does not pay enough to take care of the bills. And so, I have a day job--which is air traffic control (and no, it isn’t the person at the airport who waves around the glowing sticks). I have been doing it for almost eighteen years now, and I love it. However, for some reason, Hollywood has had mixed results when trying to depict my prestigious career choice, and I thought it would be fun to take a look at three films that have tried to tackle the subject.

Ground Control (1998)

This movie has the worst air traffic control scenes I have ever seen committed to celluloid. Keifer Sutherland plays Jack Harris, a controller who works out of Chicago that has an unfortunate incident with a plane going down during his watch. He quits due to his overwhelming guilt (even though the crash isn’t his fault) and takes a job designing air traffic software. But here is where it gets ridiculous: his former supervisor calls him up five years later and asks him to help out with manning at his facility because they are short-staffed on New Year’s Eve. First off, Jack would need to go back through training, get acclimated to the airspace and local procedures, work for several months, get a physical and drug test—the list goes on. In this movie all you apparently have to do is come in and you can sit down and control traffic like you never left.

It doesn’t help that this movie is terrible in general--the story doesn’t make any sense and the sets look like cheap crap, and I am pretty sure they didn’t ask any sort of aviation expert for help when writing any of the ATC sequences. The phraseology (special terminology that controllers use to talk to planes) is all wrong, they give planes nonsensical headings and then when they show the radar scope they are going the complete opposite direction. There is an especially laughable sequence when the radar goes down due to a giant storm and Jack calculates the position and trajectory of all the planes McGuyver style with staplers, paperclips and dodgy math. It’s godawful from beginning to end, though I know a lot of controllers who love to watch this flick to make fun of it. Ground Control tops the list as the most awful air traffic movie ever.

Pushing Tin (1999)

“You land a million planes safely; then you have one little mid-air, and you never hear the end of it.”

— Air Traffic Controller, New York TRACON, 

I have a soft spot for Pushing Tin and it fares quite a bit better in the air traffic control department. “Pushing tin” is slang for working and separating aircraft as well as working under immense pressure. The film follows Nick "The Zone" Falzone (John Cusack) a hot shot controller at New York City TRACON (terminal radar approach control) which is an immensely busy facility. He is at odds with Russell Bell (Billy Bob Thornton), who is a laid-back guy with a laissez-faire attitude towards controlling.

My favorite parts of the film are when they use computer graphics to show how controllers think when they control traffic. Controllers have to think in three dimensions due to having to separate the aircraft both laterally and vertically and the way the CGI zips around the different aircraft he is talking to is really cool. I found the characters in this film to be great portrayals of the frantic, type-A personalities that are often found in my career field. Controllers work most holidays and have weird hours which puts a strain on marriages. Not to mention the stressful nature of the job itself. Pushing Tin shows all of these issues and found a lot of parallels within my own life. There is some goofy and unrealistic stuff going on, especially in the third act, but overall this is a solid film about a niche group of individuals.

United 93 (2006)
This is an extremely powerful film, as it is based on the events on September 11, 2001, when the Twin Towers were hit with a terrorist attack. United 93 was the aircraft where the passengers breached the cockpit of the aircraft and attacked the hijackers, keeping the plane from reaching its intended target. Sadly, all the passengers perished in the crash, but their sacrifice saved countless other lives. It’s filmed documentary style with everything unfolding in real time. The director wanted everything to be as realistic as possible so he had many of the parts played by the people who were actually there that day.

In the scenes at Newark Airport, several air traffic controllers who were in the Newark control tower on 9/11, and who witnessed the air attacks on the World Trade Center, play themselves. In the scenes at the air traffic monitoring centers in Boston, New York, and Cleveland, the air traffic monitors are all played by real-life air traffic controllers, including several who were at these locations on 9/11, and who monitored the hijacked flights. I loved how they showed the professionalism of the controllers and their supernatural ability to keep cool under pressure. These men and women work hard every day to keep the planes in the sky safe for everyone, and it was fantastic to see them finally get the kudos they deserve in this film. This is by far the best ATC depiction I have seen in any film.

-Michelle Kisner