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Freaky in-flight films – and can a plane fly upside-down?

September 13, 2013 Aviation, Headline News No Comments Email Email

egtmedia59Personal video screens let airlines be bolder when selecting their in-flight movies. In the days when all passengers watched a big central screen, airline film programmers had to be more cautious.

Qantas, for instance, showed the Denzel Washington air-crash drama Flight this year. Air crash films used to be a no-no, but Flight is listed in the Qantas on-demand entertainment system, so passengers have the choice of whether to watch it or not. Qantas advises viewers about the nature of the content in advance, so those of a nervous disposition can select another Hollywood blockbuster instead.

Flyers who dare to watch Flight (which came out last year) will view hair-raising early scenesflight-movie-poster showing Washington, as Captain Whip Whittaker, piloting a commercial aircraft (a twin-engine, 150-seat MD-88) that suffers major mechanical failure. When the plane goes into a terrifying dive, dauntless Captain Whitaker flips it on its back and flies it upside-down to keep it airborne until he can attempt a safe landing.

The film raises two questions. Just what sort of films are airlines showing, and more intriguingly, can a commercial aircraft fly upside down?

The answer to the first question is that airlines generally avoid culturally offensive, profoundly violent or sexually explicit movies. Sometimes carriers screen a  “modified” (censored or toned-down) version of the film. The producers often make those for television screening. As passengers on long-haul flights tend to spend over 75% of their wakeful hours using in-flight entertainment, airlines like to provide plenty of choice.

On the other question, can an airliner fly upside down (without the help of a Hollywood special effects department), the answer is: “yes, but not for long”. Military fighter jets fly upside down with Flight Denzel Washingtonease because their engine power is enormous for their weight. Commercial airliners do not have that sort of power-to-weight ratio and rely on lift from wings to stay airborne.

When Flight, the film, was released, Boeing made its position clear on upside-down flight: “The MD-80 series cannot sustain inverted flight. The MD-80, as with all commercial airliners, was designed to fly upright. Commercial airliners are only tested and certified for upright flight.”

So there. It sounds like one of those “don’t try this at home” warnings.

(The MD-88, for the record, was made by McDonnell Douglas, which merged with Boeing in 1997.)

Despite Boeing’s careful denial, the airline service and safety rating website, reveals an interesting fact – a Boeing aircraft has flown upside down – twice!

It happened in August 1955.

As relates:

During the 1955 International Air Transport Association (IATA) Annual General Meeting in Seattle, Boeing hosted airline chiefs at the Gold Cup power boat races at Lake Washington. 

The highlight, before the power boat race, was to be a fly-by of the “Dash-80” Boeing 707 prototype. But to impress the chiefs of the world’s airlines, Boeing’s legendary test pilot “Tex” Johnston put the Dash-80 into a 1G roll [a slow roll which turns the aircraft upside-down at one point] which, while not overstressing the airframe, gave Boeing’s then-President Bill Allen severe heart palpitations. 

Not content with one roll, and in case any of the airline executives thought they were seeing things, Tex brought the Dash-80 around again and repeated the maneuver. The next day Tex quipped to Allen when asked about the barrel roll, “I was just selling airplanes.”

Written by : Peter Needham

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