A mid-air collision is every air traffic controller’s nightmare. And if it happens, the controller may be the first person to be blamed. This is what Blackout Effect is all about. It is a made-for-TV movie first aired on NBC in January 1998 as a “World Premiere Movie” and co-starring Eric Stoltz (Pulp Fiction) and Charles Martin Smith (The Untouchables).
The movie starts with what the fast-paced world of air traffic control looks like. At Los Angeles International Airport (LAX), several planes take off and land and, in the background, voices of many air traffic controllers overlap.
Two flight attendants are about to board their respective flights. Catherine Parmel (Alexandra Hedison) tries to call her ex-boyfriend, John Dantley (Eric Stoltz), an NTSB investigator, but can’t reach him. She feels like seeing him again in Washington, and switches flights with her colleague Laurie. As a result, Catherine is flying LAX-Chicago-Washington Dulles on Global Airlines flight 1025. The airline prides proclaims itself as “the number one on-time airline”, but departure is briefly delayed due to air traffic congestion. Meanwhile, John Dantley is concluding an investigation at the NTSB on another plane crash.
At Midwest Center, a fictional air traffic control center near Chicago, a controller explains to a trainee how to “make a sandwich” with three planes, by layering them on the same position but different flight levels. Global 1025 is handed over to Henry Drake (Charles Martin Smith), portrayed as a controller with a difficult behaviour that drives his boss crazy.
Then, the title of the movie becomes obvious: Blackout Effect… Drake’s screen “blacks out”, becoming completely dark for a few seconds. He loudly complains about this, but everyone around makes fun of him. The controller next to him tells him to stop talking and to watch two planes, Global 1025 and PDO 342, a cargo plane, that are about to conflict. At that moment, Global 1025 starts to experience turbulence. The pilot requests clearance to climb, but Drake refuses. Clearance to descend? Also denied, as Drake has other planes at other flight levels.
Global 1025’s TCAS suddenly starts saying “TRAFFIC… TRAFFIC”. But the pilots have no visual contact with the other aircraft. Drake’s colleague sees that Global 1025 and PDO 342 are getting close, but the latter is not on Drake’s screen. In addition, Drake can make no radio contact with PDO 342.
Global 1025’s TCAS now says “TRAFFIC, DESCEND NOW… TRAFFIC, DESCEND NOW…” Drake tells the pilot to maintain flight level. Suddenly PDO 342 appears instantly on Drake’s screen and is dangerously close to Global 1025. Drake suddenly yells “Global 1025, descend immediately!” Global 1025 responds quickly by banking left and right and diving. But PDO 342 is not responding…
The two planes start to blink on the screen. The conflict alarm sounds. Both planes are not responding nor acknowledging Drake’s instructions. Then, PDO 342 slams into the right wing of Global 1025 and both planes enter a freefall. For a few seconds, the two flights continue to move on the screen, with the mention CST (coast track), then disappear. 185 people are killed. There are no survivors.
As the investigation begins, Drake is hounded by the media, who are looking for a quick culprit and immediately begin to speculate as to what caused the crash. After all, in the moments before the crash, the controller appeared to be confused and was known by his co-workers and boss as “eccentric”. But Dantley suspects that “There is a flaw in the system”. Drake’s ATC screen may have been breaking down and experiencing blackouts, where plane blips dissapear momentarily. The investigation will tell…
I like the fact that, a little like Crash: The Mystery of Flight 1501, the movie denounces how the media covers air disasters and is quick at speculating and finding someone to blame quickly. We finally see a movie where air traffic control is at the forefront.
However, what really disappointed me was that the producers focused on air traffic control at the detriment of aviation. As a result, there were terrible technical mistakes (see “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 portray 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!”. In fact, an aircraft of that size would typically have two “black boxes”, the Cockpit Voice Recorder (CVR) and the Flight Data Recorder (FDR), not to mention that in the movie, with one “black box”, the investigators can recreate a computer animation of 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 not responding to radio transmissions.
Now here is some trivia…
- Chicago O’Hare airport is known as “Chicago International”
- Other fictional airlines in the movie are 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. 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 flying LAX-ORD-IAD (Los Angeles – Chicago O’Hare – Washington Dulles). PDO 342 is a cargo Boeing 727 (according to the computer animation shown).
- 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).