After a night of partying, Captain William ‘Whip’ Whitaker assumes control of a plane and guides it through turbulence. His subsequent nap is broken by his panicking co-pilot, who foresees disaster as the plane nosedives. Whip takes command of the situation, flying the plane upside down to arrest the dive and slowing it down enough to save most of the people on board.

Flight by Robert Zemeckis is a story about a miraculous save and a deep dive into the life of a brilliant yet messed-up pilot. You might be surprised to learn that the film has some real-life inspirations. 

Flight is loosely based on the real-life crash of Alaska Airlines Flight 261

In 2000, Alaska Airlines Flight 261 crashed into the Pacific Ocean due to a failure of the jackscrew. The failure caused the plane to nosedive forcing pilot Ed Thompson to fly the aircraft upside down. “At least, upside down, we’re flyin,” Captain Ed said, according to the flight recording. 

Flying the plane inverted arrested the descent, but it had lost too much altitude to be recovered. The high-speed crash into the Pacific Ocean killed all occupants of the aircraft. Thompson and co-pilot Bill Tansky were posthumously awarded the Airline Pilots Association Gold Medal for Heroism. 

The filmmakers spent a considerable amount of effort recreating the flight. They attached a plane cabin weighing 30,000 pounds to a rotating gimbal to mimic the movements of an upside-down aircraft; the cast was really in upside-down positions. The creators used CGI to complete the crash scene. 

Director Robert Zemeckis consulted experts to ensure the scene looked as realistic as possible. “We have real pilots and experts vet all these ideas,” he told CTV News.

Denzel Washington trained with pilots to better understand how they would behave in a crisis situation. He also listened to several cockpit recordings to get a feel of the plane’s control room before a crash. 

The idea to tell the tale of a damaged pilot came from a real-life experience writer John Gatins had with an off-duty airline pilot. Gatins’ conversion with the pilot made him realize that pilots have problems. It made him think about how we unflinchingly entrust our lives to people we don’t know. He told the LA Times:

“I want pilots to be somebody who would take a bullet to get me to JFK. And here was this guy with the potential to reveal that he wasn’t a god.”