Filmed in Georgia: Atlanta, Delta Airlines lend a hand in making 'Flight' feel realistic

·4 min read

Filmed in Georgia is a weekly column by Frank Hotchkiss. Contact Frank with recommendations at online@savannahnow.com.

In a 2012 interview with the Los Angeles Times, the screenwriter of "Flight" explained that the dramatic fictional crash depicted in the movie by director Robert Zemeckis was "loosely inspired" by the 2000 crash of Alaska Airlines Flight 261, which was caused by a broken jackscrew.

In that incident, an ungreased jackscrew came loose and caused a catastrophic failure from which recovery was impossible, though pilot Ted Thompson and first officer Bill Tansky were able to fly the plane inverted in the last moments of the flight. Among the captain's last words on the were:

“Okay we are inverted... Now we got to get it... Are we flying? We're flying... We're flying... Tell them what we're doing. At least upside down we're flying.”

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The Alaska Airlines 261 crash had no survivors. The airplane in "Flight," a two-engine T-tail jet airliner, appears to be from the same model family as was the plane involved in the Alaska Airlines 261 disaster, a variant of the MD-80. Many elements from the accident were used in the film, such as the cause of the accident, segments of the radio communication, and the inversion of the airplane.

"Flight" is a story of an alcoholic commercial pilot whose plane crashes, but it is not a story about weakness or failure, but ultimately a story of courage and strength. Much of is set in Georgia,

Captain Whip Whitaker, played by Denzel Washington, wrestles the crippled commercial flight with a frozen elevator locked in a steep dive, landing it with minimal loss of life despite all odds. He emerges as a hero in this recounting of the crash that killed all onboard off the coast of Santa Barbara, Calif., in 2000.

Whitaker is a hero – or is he? The rest of film wrestles with this question.

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A subsequent investigation discloses a few anomalies: Why did the plane fail? Did the crew -- including the pilot -- contribute to the tragedy? Why were there small empty bottles of vodka on a flight with no passenger drink service? Who drank the alcohol? Could that have contributed to the disaster? Was it avoidable? Who was responsible? Who should pay?

Whitaker’s struggle with alcohol comes to light as the central focus of the film, in which he functions well while completely drunk. Friends do their best to help him face facts: He’s a helpless alcoholic in the grips of his addiction with no escape from his problem, not even his divorced wife and son.

"Flight" was largely filmed on location near Atlanta over 45 days in November 2011. Delta Airlines reportedly gave the cast and crew access to their flight simulator to familiarize them with common airplane maneuvers.

Other Georgia locations include The St. Regis Atlanta, Hall's Flying Ranch in Hampton, Georgia, St. Joseph's Hospital, and Atlanta First United Methodist Church.

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The film was produced with a relatively small budget of $31 million, which Zemeckis calculated to be his smallest in inflation-adjusted dollars since 1980, made possible because of tax rebates from Georgia and because Zemeckis and Washington waived their customary fees. It was so well done that according to Zemeckis, he didn’t excise a single scene, although some were shortened.

Washington never drinks to portray a drunk. However, he did pack on some weight to portray Whip Whitaker. The remote private field shots were made at precisely that – a remote grass private field in Georgia called Hills Flying Ranch.

Frank Hotchkiss
Frank Hotchkiss

In the end, the success of this film hinges in Washington’s confrontation with his failure in a public arena that could – and does – lead to a life in jail. It’s a wonderful depiction of the moment when truth and falsehood collide. Wonderfully acted by Washington, truth wins out.

"Flight" is available at your local library and can be streamed on Amazon Prime and Sling TV.

This article originally appeared on Savannah Morning News: Movies filmed in Georgia: Flight, Denzel Washington aided by Delta