Ready For Take-Off?
A Trained Professional Offers Insightful Perspective On 'Pushing Tin'... And Our Reviewer Goes Along For The Ride.
By Zachary Woodruff
MAY 3, 1999: FOR PUSHING TIN, in which John Cusack and Billy Bob Thornton play rival air-traffic controllers, we asked a real air-traffic controller, a 32-year-old woman who preferred not to be identified, whether the film lives up--or down--to the occupation it portrays.
ATC: I'm at Albuquerque's En-Route Traffic Control Center, where Billy Bob Thornton's character is supposedly from. We keep you safe when you're way up in the stratosphere.
ATC: Yeah, it was pretty intense. But I'll tell you what I heard recently about that, which is that when Darcy Frey was interviewing the controllers, they were embellishing and pulling his leg a lot--pretty much screwing with the guy. The whole thing was kind of a joke, and Frey didn't get it. That's the inside dope.
ATC: I don't think I've heard anybody say that since I've been in the building--for the last seven years.
ATC: Well, there's a plane called an air bus--we call 'em "scare buses," because their climb performance is pretty good up to a point, and then they just dog it.
TW: In the movie, planes seem to be at the mercy of controllers. For example, when Cusack's freaked out because he thinks his wife Cate Blanchett is sleeping with Thornton, it's as if passengers might die. Is that realistic?
ATC: Not really. Most planes have on-board equipment called TCAS (Traffic Collision and Avoidance System). If we were to mess up traffic because we were paranoid about cheating spouses or something, the plane would still get an automatic warning to climb or descend.
ATC: Oh God, yes.
ATC: Yes. It's not a crash, it's an operational error where you lose standard separation. Even if two planes are 4.7 miles apart instead of 5, it's a deal.
ATC: That's not how it works. When you have a deal, you have to go through a lot of training and follow-up training, and you have to get recertified. They don't just put you back to work.
ATC: We learn to talk fast, but it's a prescribed phraseology; it's pretty standard. We also learn to alter our voices for maximum effect. My husband uses a disc-jockey voice. I use my deepest, most sultry voice. If I need a pilot to listen to me, it helps if I do a Kathleen Turner impression.
ATC: No, that's stupid. Those guys are screwed up.
ATC: No, and the fact that the movie only has one female controller (Vicki Lewis, from News Radio) is very unrealistic. Where I work is 30 or 40 percent women. We're a very incestuous group--there's a lot of husband-and-wife teams. There are men with housewives, but there isn't that macho attitude. It's not like guys come into work swingin' it around.
ATC: There's a lot of minivans in the parking lot. Actually, we just had a guy out here get a Dodge Viper. All the guys go out and look at the Viper and get hard-ons. I suppose they'd race him if they could, but they've all got minivans.
ATC: Yeah, look at me! (laughs) Uh, no.
ATC: We do play fantasy football. We also have a foos-ball table in the back. Hmm...Oh yeah, recently we had a fist fight in the TV room because there were two guys fighting over the remote. It was between bass fishing and NASCAR racing.
ATC: Personally, when I'm having really bad problems, working the traffic is a welcome escape. Other people, things might eat at them. If that's happening, you can ask to work a slower sector.
ATC: No. They would land the plane as soon as possible, and Cusack would be immediately arrested.
ATC: We have contingency plans, and we'd never make two controllers stay behind. We'd just turn our air space over to several other centers.
ATC: If you went onto the runway you'd get arrested. In any case, that's not even how wake turbulence works--it's in the air. Once it hits the ground it just dissipates.
ATC: Definitely the first one. (laughs)
ATC: She can't go into the cockpit! The plane would send a secret message down to their operations, who would then call the facility and tell them what was going on, and they'd pull the guy off the sector. He'd get fired and they'd arrest him.
ATC: Actually, there have been times when I've mentioned to the pilot that my mom or dad was aboard the plane, and they've given them extra peanuts.
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