Friday, August 17, 2012

Movie Trailer "Flight": Can An Airliner Fly Upside Down?

A friend sent me a link to the trailer for the movie Flight featuring Denzel Washington, which brought up the question of whether an airliner could actually perform/survive a rapid descent and inverted flight.

First, some disclaimers. I'm not an aerospace engineer, flight instructor, etc. Obviously, the movie isn't out yet so I don't know the sequence of events or details of the action. That being said, there have been instances of commercial airliners performing aerobatic maneuvers including barrel rolls and inverted flight (albeit for a brief period).

Test pilot Tex Johnson famously rolled a Boeing 707 at the Seattle Seafair in 1955.

In 1985, China Airlines Flight 006, a Boeing 747, suffered an engine flameout, rolled and plunged almost 30,000 feet, finally leveling out at 9600 feet and making a safe emergency landing. Safe despite the fact that the wings were bent, landing gear doors ripped off, 2 landing gears left hanging by a thread, the hydraulic system ruptured and empty, large chunks of horizontal stabilizers (the flat thingies on the tail) ripped off, and part of the left outboard elevator (control thingy on the wing) gone.

In 1995, Fed Ex Flight 705, a DC 10, was in flight when an attempted hijacking took place. During the struggle, there were moments of inverted and near transonic flight. The Captain, even though injured, managed to safely land the plane, even though it was well over its maximum designed landing weight due to fuel load and he was forced to make sharp turns which strained the DC 10's design limits.

Here's a photo of an Airbus A400M doing a steep wing over (not quite inverted) at Farnborough.

Last, in Sept 2011 an ANA (All Nippon Airways) Boeing 737 made headlines by rolling over during flight - because the co-pilot thought he was turning a knob to let the pilot back into the cockpit after a bathroom break, but it was actually the rudder control. The plane recovered, and as in any well executed roll the passengers barely felt a thing.

As a special treat, here's a YouTube video featuring Bob Hoover, one of the greatest aviation legends of all time. The first part shows "stopped engine" aerobatics; if you go to the last third (around 2:09) you will see video of Bob pouring a glass of tea while executing a roll.

                                                         View Bob Hoover Video 

Happy flying!
Boeing 707 at Peterson AFB. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain, USAF


  1. The Airbus 400, if in level flight (holding altitude) in that turn would be exerting about 3 G's on the air frame, well within safety limits.The passengers would not be impressed at 3G,a 120 pound passenger would feel like they weighed 360 pounds.

    it is much safer to simulate the inverted flight in the movie lot using computers. Most of the extreme stunts are computer generated anyway.

    1. Hi Ian. Well known pilot Bob Hoover poured himself a drink while executing a roll in his plane - there's a video of it on YouTube I believe. :-) Agree that it will be CG in the film of course. This was just a sort of general interest post on whether or not taking an airliner inverted is even possible.

  2. I guess anything can happen in a Denzel Washington film! I would have thought that the wing would get caught in the slip stream as the plane rights itself and that therefore, it would be impossible to recover from that position. I don't know though - best not to think about it!

  3. I'll have to ask the guy I work with at the observatory about this. He was an aerospace engineer for Boeing.

  4. Um, methinks that co-pilot needed more training...

    Very interesting! Thanks for all that information. I never thought about a plane being over landing weight due to not having used the amount of fuel expected; storing that away!

  5. Hi Li! So glad to get out here and visit before my old laptop overheats. This post reminds me of why I don't like to fly, righside up or upside down. Have a great day and thanks for all the interesting info on the subject.

    1. Hi Rasz - and best of luck with your artwork on display!

  6. Fascinating! I'm not sure I want fly again, though . . .