The perception of air traffic control as a very tense and stressful environment has made it the setting of choice for a number of film directors over the years.
Some fantastic (and often less so) films have featured aspects of air traffic control, but what they all tend to have in common is a dubious level of accuracy and realism. So we thought it was time to set the record straight and as such, have asked an expert from inside NATS to get out the popcorn and give us an accuracy rating for that quintessential ATC movie, Pushing Tin…
Pushing Tin, review by Colin Wyatt, Airspace Change Specialist
The most famous movie involving air traffic control is “Pushing Tin” (1999 starring John Cusack, Billy Bob Thornton, Angelina Jolie and Cate Blanchett). But is its depiction realistic?
There are a few major scenes involving ATC, a fictionalised version of New York’s TRACON (Terminal Radar Approach Control) centre, handling traffic to and from JFK, Newark and La Guardia amongst others. The New York TRACON is similar in concept to NATS’ London Terminal Control Centre, based at Swanwick in Hampshire.
Firstly, the look of the radar room and props are pretty accurate for the time, so the set designers did a good job. The controller’s visualisation of air traffic is also not bad – some 2D-to-3D graphics try to put you inside John Cusack’s head when working out where aircraft are (and how high) in relation to all the others.
The language used by the controllers is also pretty realistic, though they seem intent on delivering it as fast as possible soallthewordsruntogetherlikethiswithoutgapsatall. Even the busiest controllers moderate their speech so that each phrase is clear, and checks that each pilot has received and understood the instruction – if you need to repeat yourself, it takes longer than saying it slower in the first place.
Where things begin to fall down though is the controllers’ attitude. I can assure you that this is very much fictionalised! Controllers don’t stop what they’re doing and wander over to each other’s radar screens, they don’t get involved in long personal chats with pilots, nor do they compete to see who can handle the most aircraft! This leads on to…
…the risks they take with aircraft and with their colleagues, to achieve a faster landing rate. Maximising efficiency is great, but safety is always the highest priority, so these scenes are dramatised WAY beyond reality.
The lack of anyone other than controllers is also off the mark. Controllers may be the people looking at the radar and speaking on the radio, but who fixes the radar and installs the radio equipment? Who prepares the maps or writes the procedures? The reality is that for every controller, there are five or six other people working to make sure they have the best equipment, training and support.
Finally, all controllers everywhere are handsome and beautiful, so that part at least is spot on. And the coolest ones always ride motorbikes.
Accuracy Rating: 3/5
We’d love to hear your memories of ATC in the movies – from Die Hard 2 and Airplane through to Ground Control – so leave a comment with your favourites.
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