Mid-air collision… These three words are the nightmare of any air traffic controller. And when this nightmare happens, the first person to be accused is often the controller. This is what Blackout Effect is all about. This made-for-TV movie was first presented on NBC in January 1998 as a “World Premiere Movie” and co-stars Eric Stoltz (from Pulp Fiction) and Charles Martin Smith (from The Untouchables).
The movie starts with what the wicked world of air traffic control (ATC) looks like. A medley of planes on take-off and landing in Los Angeles International Airport are shown, under a mix of the voice of many air traffic controllers.
Two flight attendants are about to board their flight. Catherine Parmel (Alexandra Hedison) tries to call an old friend (ex-boyfriend actually), John Dantley (Eric Stoltz), an NTSB investigator. She can’t reach him. So, she feels like seeing him again at Washington. So, she switches flights with her colleague Laurie. Catherine is now on a LAX-Chicago-Dulles route on Global Airlines, flight 1025, “the number one on-time airline”… whose flight is delayed due to air traffic congestion. It finally takes off after a (very brief) delay. In the meantime, John Dantley is finishing his investigation at the NTSB on another plane crash.
Then, back in the world of ATC, this time at Midwest Center, some fictitious ATC center near Chicago. As one ATC controller makes a sandwich with three planes (by layering them on the same position but different flight levels), it’s time for Henry Drake (Charles Martin Smith) to start his routine. This is when we get to know the eccentric temperament of Drake that drives his boss crazy. Once in front of his ATC screen, he is handed Global 1025 as it enters Midwest Center airspace.
Then, the title of the movie becomes obvious: Blackout Effect… Drake’s screen “blacks out”. It becomes totally dark and turns back on again after a few seconds. He loudly complains and everyone makes fun of him. The ATC controller next to him tells him to shut up and watch two planes, Global 1025 and PDO 342, a cargo plane, that are about to conflict. Suddenly, Global 1025 starts to experience turbulence. The pilot requests clearance to climb, but Drake refuses. Clearance to descend? Denied, as Drake has other planes on other flight levels.
Global 1025′s TCAS suddenly starts saying “TRAFFIC.. TRAFFIC”. But no traffic in sight. The other ATC controller sees on his screen Global 1025 and PDO 342 are getting close, but PDO 342 is not on Drake’s screen. Odd… Also, Drake just lost radio contact with PDO 342.
The TCAS now says “TRAFFIC, DESCEND NOW… TRAFFIC, DESCEND NOW…” Drake tells him not to change flight level. Suddenly PDO 342 appears instantly on the screen. It’s almost touching Global 1025. Drake suddenly yells “Global 1025, descend immediately!” Global 1025 responds quickly by banking left and right and suddenly diving. But PDO 342 is not responding… The two planes are blinking on the screen. The conflict alarm sounds. Both planes no longer respond. No answer, no acknowledgement. Did the two planes see each other and avoid collision?
PDO 342 slams into the right wing of Global 1025 and it’s freefall for both planes. The blips are still moving, but indicating CST (coast track, i.e. no radar return), until they both disappear. Death toll: 185. No survivors on either planes.
The investigation begins. Drake is blamed and harassed by the press, who are looking for a quick culprit and speculating immediately. Is the crash due to bad judgement from Drake? After all, he was confused and was known by his co-workers and boss as “eccentric”. But, as Dantley would say: “There is a flaw in the system”. Was the ATC screen of Drake breaking down and allowing plane blips to blackout? The mystery is there. The rest of the movie is interesting, but maybe not worth wasting your patience to wait until it is re-broadcast on NBC or any other channel.
I like the fact that, a little like Crash: The Mystery of Flight 1501, the movie denounces how the media processes air disasters and is quick at speculating and finding someone to blame quickly. We finally see a movie where the ATC is no longer a simple accessory, but almost plays the main role. At last the ATC world is in the eyes of the general public.
However, what really disappointed me was that the producers somehow concentrated almost entirely on ATC but forgot the aircraft and allowed terrible technical mistakes (see on “Things to notice”).
I give this movie a generous 7 out of 10.
It could have been an excellent movie if it wasn’t of the technical mistakes.
Things to notice
Here are some of the technical mistakes of Blackout Effect.
- Global 1025 aircraft’s type changes frequently during the movie. The passenger cabin and an investigator demonstrate it is a B757, but the cockpit and the black box animation illustrate the plane as a B747.
- The take-off sequence of Global 1025 lasts only 6 seconds and shows only the landing gears of three planes: a Thai Airways B747, a Continental Micronesia DC-10 and an American Airlines B757.
- On take-off, the order of the speeds is V1, VR and V2, and not V2 before VR, as shown in the movie.
- An investigator yells to Dantley: “We’ve found the black box!”… forgetting, or not knowing that a commercial aircraft has TWO “black boxes”, the Cockpit Voice Recorder (CVR) and the Flight Data Recorder (FDR). Yet, with only ONE “black box”, they can simulate on the computer screen, the collision between the TWO planes.
Also, the following continuity errors have been found.
- When Global 1025 suddenly pivots after the traffic alert, Catherine Parmel starts falling to her left side, but lands on her right.
- The CVR (Cockpit Voice Record) is different from what really happened, i.e. Drake says
“[rapidly, high-pitched]Global 10-25 descend immediately…
[less rapidly, normal pitch] Global 10-25 traffic alert, descend to flight level 2-1-0″
But the black box says
“[rapidly, normal pitch] Global 10-25 traffic alert descend to flight level 2-1-0.”
- During the whole investigation, everybody, even Drake, seems to forget PDO 342 was under no radio contact prior to the collision.
Now here is some trivia…
- Chicago O’Hare airport is known as “Chicago International”
- Other fictive airlines in the movie: Tri-States and Pan Atlantic.
- The email address of John Dantley is John Dantley@echo.net, with a space (and not an underscore) between “John” and “Dantley”. And the email address of Henry Drake is firstname.lastname@example.org… The best part is that EchoNet is an online community in New York and SlipNet is a real Internet Service Provider (how part of HugeHosting).
Global 1025 is a passenger Boeing 747 and/or a Boeing 757 on a LAX-ORD-IAD flight (Los Angeles – Chicago O’Hare – Washington Dulles). PDO 342 is a cargo Boeing 727 (according to the black box).
- IMDb – Blackout Effect
Cast, plot summary, goofs from the world’s largest movie database.
- AVweb Reviews – NBC’s Blackout Effect
Possibly the best review of the movie. More detailed than this one. Beware: it’s full of spoilers!
U.S.A. 1998, Produced by Citadel Entertainment and First Street Films. Directed by Jeff Bleckner. Starring Eric Stoltz, Charles Martin Smith, Leslie Hope, Lorraine Toussaint, Andy Comeau, Tucker Smallwood, Joe Guzaldo. Rated PG. Also known as Écran noir à la tour de contrôle (French), Die Kollision – Inferno am Himmel (German).