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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17.10.2013

16:14

si lewis

i would agree that UK controllers do moderate their speech – but have you ever listened to Kennedy tower? Words shoot out of their mouths at a frenetic pace.

17.10.2013

18:06

@EWRPresident

Try listening to Newark Tower ground or local control on a SWAP night in the summer. Or maybe the Class Bravo position on a nice weekend. It’s a constant stream of instructions and readbacks.

18.10.2013

00:49

Andy McGowan

There was also that scene in Die Hard 2, where the Radar unit Supervisor stood in the middle of the busy control room & began by shouting “attention all controllers”…. whereupon all the busy controllers stopped what they were doing to & turned to listen to him. He told them all about the bad weather & what a good job they were doing & ended with that classic phrase…. “so stack’em, pack’em & rack’em”…. then they all turned and began shouting at their screens again!
I must use that phrase more often.

That’s one of my favourites too, Andy. I particularly enjoy how the journalist just wanders into the tower!

18.10.2013

10:39

Andy Milligan (@Irish_Andy)

Chewin’ The Fat’s version of how it’s done north of the border has the be the best. Not in terms of realism, of course, but pure hilarity! http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MeI154gaWL4&list=PL34D889655C920F1A

18.10.2013

11:15

James Dean

Classic line from Ground Control…a broadcast to all the aircraft in the controllers sector.
‘Listen up y’all, you all do as I say and we’ll keep it tight as a G-string!’

18.10.2013

18:38

Paul Collier

Best ATC film ever! I remember some certain Aberdeen controllers all went off to the cinema to watch this….but they’ve moved to Scottish now!! I believe the outside of the Tracon scenes were filmed at Toronto Centre.
Why weren’t the ordering the breakfast scenes shown here….surely every controller orders that way!!! lol

21.10.2013

13:37

Rick Jones

Blimey, how old is that movie! Certainly pulling things out of the archives!

22.10.2013

07:49

Jeremy Fewster

If somebody tells me autopilots aren’t really blow-up dolls, I’m going to be very disappointed.
I was surprised to find Farnborough’s old tower had an ABO (airfield black-out) button, that had a similar effect to when Johnny pulled the plug out in the tower in Airplane.
“Only kidding!”

22.10.2013

07:51

Sarah Wood

In Ground Control, I love the way the new ATCO is left to fend for herself after all of 5 minutes training post-college. As a recently valid ATCO, I can say that definitely isn’t the case! Also, if a controller storms off from the radar in a huff, another one simply leaves his position unattended to take over the other radar as well – madness!

26.11.2013

09:55

James Creegan- Rockshore

I thought Die Hard 2 was a documentary? 😉

10.04.2015

20:38

Liam

During Die Hard 2. When all hell breaks loose and the supervisor is running around with a analogue flight computer…

16.11.2015

15:57

John Cameron

A film called Ground Control. (1998)
One of its title cards reads over 200,000 flights operate over the USA per day carrying 2,000,000 passengers. That fact is about as good as the film, garbage, but, I have to hand it to Airplane, for realism in dealing with a passenger landing a plane.


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