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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.

TW: Where do you work?

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.

TW: Pushing Tin was inspired by a New York Times Magazine article by Darcy Frey, called "Something's Got to Give," about the hard-core macho controllers at New York TRACON (Terminal Radar Approach Control). Have you read it?

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.

TW: Do controllers really use the term "pushing tin"?

ATC: I don't think I've heard anybody say that since I've been in the building--for the last seven years.

TW: Don't you have a jargon?

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.

TW: So the air is a lot safer than it's portrayed in the movie?

ATC: Oh God, yes.

TW: In the movie, when Cusack almost causes a crash, they say he "had a deal." Is that the actual lingo?

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.

TW: After Cusack's "deal," he goes straight back to the scopes.

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.

TW: Do you really talk like auctioneers from outer space?

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.

TW: At restaurants, do you use your controller voice to order food really fast, like Cusack and his buddies do?

ATC: No, that's stupid. Those guys are screwed up.

TW: Pushing Tin's characters are mostly men, and their suburban housewives seem to exist solely to help the men de-stress. Is that accurate?

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.

TW: Both Cusack and Thornton drive dangerously fast as a result of job stress. Are controllers really road maniacs?

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.

TW: In Pushing Tin, Thornton is married to Angelina Jolie, a stunning 20-year-old who's all lips and nips. I mean, they purposely frame shots around those features. Do any of the men at work have astonishingly sexy young wives?

ATC: Yeah, look at me! (laughs) Uh, no.

TW: Cusack and Thornton become ridiculously competitive about wives, work, driving, basketball free-throws, even the ability to withstand pain. It's sorta like Top Gun in suburbia. Do rivalries really spring up between top controllers?

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.

TW: Pushing Tin turns out to be more about infidelity in marriage than about air-traffic controlling. Then later it's about how demoralization affects competence. Do you find that your job performance wanes when things are going badly in your life?

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.

TW: When the infidelity situation gets especially grim, Cusack is on a plane and tries to force his way into the cockpit because he's paranoid that Thornton, who's on the ground controlling, will make the plane crash. It's played for laughs. Realistic?

ATC: No. They would land the plane as soon as possible, and Cusack would be immediately arrested.

TW: A few more realism questions: Just when you think Pushing Tin has forgotten the subject of air-traffic controlling altogether, there's a convenient bomb threat and the two main characters must stay and get all the planes routed. Is this likely?

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.

TW: At one point, we see Thornton stand behind a landing 747 so he can be blown away by its "wake turbulence." He flies through the air like a scrap of paper picked up by a twister, then falls down laughing. Is this typical controller behavior?

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.

TW: Then there's that scene where Cusack and Thornton come to terms with their tension by experiencing "wake turbulence" together. Afterwards, they lie ruffled in the dirt like two lovers after a romp. Would you say this was some form of subtextual homosexual release? Or were they just being manly and experiencing the forces of nature?

ATC: Definitely the first one. (laughs)

TW: At the end of the movie, one of the controllers refuses to route a plane unless his estranged wife, who is on board, will agree to have dinner with him. They take her into the cockpit, and he sings to her. What would happen if a controller actually did this?

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.

TW: So controllers can't communicate with loved ones who are aboard a plane?

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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