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Three Air Traffic Controllers Fact-Check ‘Die Hard 2’

Is ‘Die Hard 2’ a Christmas movie? Are airport police really that stupid? Can you really just ‘change sea level’ to crash a plane? Let’s settle this once and for all

If you’re struggling to remember which one Die Hard 2 is, it’s exactly the same as the first Die Hard, except it’s set in an airport. While John McClane is waiting for his wife to arrive at Washington Dulles, the entire facility is taken over by a bunch of terrorists: Planes are forced to circle the airport for hours as communication is cut off from the tower, but fortunately, McClane is there to save the day. 

Thanks to the incompetence of the airport police, McClane is once again a lone man on a mission, and like he did just a year earlier at Nakatomi Plaza, McClane has to sneak through a basement, tangle with an elevator shaft and gun down some bad guys. Also — in a choice that defies even the most forgiving suspension of disbelief — the events once again take place on Christmas Eve. Really, the lack of creativity in the story of Die Hard 2 is perfectly summed up by the very mention of its full title: Die Hard 2: Die Harder. Yeah, that’s the best they could come up with back in 1990.

So, while the basic storyline and premise of Die Hard 2 defies logic on multiple levels, it’s worth finding out if any of what happens in the movie rings true. After all, there’s a great deal of official-sounding airport-y-type talk in the movie, as the control room of Dulles becomes ground zero for executions, hostage situations, political intrigue and — of course — a plane crash. And who better to fact-check this flick than a bunch of air traffic controllers?

On the Movie’s Total Lack of Originality

Dan Mooney, author and air traffic controller: Oh, it’s the exact same movie, but it’s pretty self-aware. Like, there’s that part in the elevator where he tells the reporter, “I’ve done this before.” At one point the cop calls him John Wayne, and that’s where his name came from! In the first one, they wrote a John Wayne character, so they named him John McClane, but of course, John Wayne wasn’t mentioned in the script. In this one, they were like, “Fuck it, let’s put that in there!”

On All That Official-Sounding Airport-y-Type Talk

Chris Hopek, air traffic controller: The control tower making all of those decisions is not how it works — there are different levels of air-traffic facilities. With aircraft flying across the country, they’re talking to the Center, which handles high-altitude stuff. Then, as they get closer to the airport, they switch to the TRACON, which handles lower altitudes. Finally, they’re handed off to the control tower for landing clearance, so there’s a step-down as they approach, and they’re handed off to different controllers along the way. That means that if the tower were cut off, they’d just switch over to the TRACON.

Mooney: I don’t want to say the movie is “accurate,” but they’ve protected themselves a bit by not saying too much — and you can’t criticize what they don’t say. If they had tried to add more technical jargon, they would have tripped themselves up. But by not saying a lot of things, they do okay. They obviously hired some sort of ATC consultant, because they’ve got some of the jargon down and some of the stuff is bizarrely accurate, or at least, not inaccurate because they’ve left out a bunch of stuff.

That said, there are some pretty hilarious gaffes. Like, the runway orientation for the bad guys is all wrong, and there’s a part where the one guy is talking about radio frequencies and says, “It’s VHF, but the planes are so close it doesn’t matter!” And I’m like, “It’s fucking VHF lad, that goes for 350 miles!” But someone must have stuck that in to make it seem like it was a real RadioShack job, like, “We’re gonna MacGyver the shit out of this!” The jargon they’ve put in, though, is nonsensical.

Then there’s a station manager who’s also in charge of the cops and is also apparently in charge of the entire airport, to where he is the single voice of authority in the entire Dulles airport. An airport is a massive, massive beast that needs many, many managers, so the idea that this one guy is all of those things is a laughable concept. I mean, what happens if that guy gets a cold?

Also, there’s that part where he makes a speech and all the air traffic controllers turn around to listen to him — that gave me a real kick. There’s even a shot of them all turning away from their radar screens to pay attention to what this guy is saying, and I’m like, “No, you idiots! Look at the screens, Godammit!”

David, air traffic controller: They used a lot of correct terminology and phraseology and they took a lot of factual stuff from the aviation community, but when they applied it to the plot, they set it up in ways that wouldn’t really happen. It’s just not a realistic scenario — like, the bad guys just set up an alternate location at that church where they could commandeer everything that goes through the airport. I don’t really think that would be feasible due to all of the intricacies of how that stuff is set up.

Hopek: Plus, there are so many contingencies: there’s backup power and generators and emergency frequencies, so there’s no way they wouldn’t have been able to switch over to that and talk to the aircraft. Plus, they didn’t tell anybody what was going on, they just kept it to themselves and that would never happen — they wouldn’t keep this “in house.”

On Why the Pilots Don’t Just Land at Another Airport

Mooney: Without even being told, all of those other flights would have redirected themselves to another airport. The pilots would wait about 20 minutes at most without communication, and then they’d go off to another airport. There would be no planes there.

David: That’s probably the biggest problem. When pilots file flight plans, they always have alternate divert locations. Additionally, the National Airspace System — which is the air-traffic network — is this big interconnected network, so as soon as somebody knew something was happening at one airport, they’d start rerouting all of those airplanes to go land somewhere else. The whole premise of the movie kind of hangs on the fact that they can’t land anywhere else, when in reality, they’d just go somewhere else.

Hopek: No pilot’s going to hold for that long and run the aircraft down to emergency fuel and risk their lives and the passengers’ lives. That’s not going to happen. 

On Whether or Not Baggage Rooms Are That Dark and Steamy

David: In Denver, the underground baggage system does work and look like that. That may just be a movie set, but I do know that some airports have systems like that, that go underground. So I’d say that’s actually kind of realistic.

On How the Hell John McClane Keeps Getting Into the Control Room

David: You just can’t walk into a building like that. Pretty much all of those facilities are locked with a cipher lock, so it would be impossible for some random person to end up in there.

Hopek: All of the random people showing up in the tower, that doesn’t happen. These are secure facilities and you need to have codes and badges and everything to get in. Even if I wanted to see a different facility, I couldn’t just walk in, even though I’m an air traffic controller. I can’t just walk in and say, “What’s up guys? Let me hang out.” That’s not possible. The police chief wouldn’t be up there, or the reporter, and of course not McClane — they couldn’t get up there without someone coming down to let them in. 

Mooney: Also, the control tower usually isn’t attached to the terminal, it’s a separate building.

On the Relentless Stupidity of Airport Police

Mooney: Poor Sipowicz, he looked like a goon the whole way through. I think he’s just in it so John McClane has someone to shout at.

On When the Bad Guys “Change Sea Level” to Crash a Plane

David: That can’t happen. The ILS — or instrument landing system — is regularly flight-checked by the FAA, which is a published procedure, so I don’t think it’s possible for them to change what that equipment is broadcasting. 

Hopek: The glide slope isn’t something that you could just click around and change, that’s not really possible. It would take a maintenance person going out to an actual facility and doing actual physical changes. Plus, the aircraft itself has redundancies, so it would have given warnings like, “Pull up, pull up, too low, pull up.” There would have been lots of warnings.

Mooney: There is a way that could happen. Basically, the ILS runs on a local pressure setting, and by knowing the local pressure setting, you know your distance above the ground. That’s what attitude is — it’s a difference in pressure from the ground up to where you are. The ILS has been programmed to tell the plane that the pressure on the ground is this much, but you absolutely could trick an airplane if you set the wrong pressure. 

It happened to two Mexican pilots maybe 20 years ago. They were killed because some wasps or hornets built a nest near the readout tube. So as they took off and up they went, the pressure reading they were getting in the cockpit was wrong — they thought that they were considerably higher above the ground than they actually were because the pressure was low. They went into the side of the mountain they couldn’t see. The collision-avoidance system was telling them “pull up, pull up,” and their last recorded words on the black box were — and we shouldn’t laugh at this even though we probably will — they told the avoidance system, “Shut up, gringo,” then they hit the mountain.

On Whether or Not a Plane That’s Out of Fuel Would Blow Up Like That

Mooney: I don’t know, but I’d assume not, and the reason I’d assume that is because 90 percent of the runway crashes I’ve ever seen don’t explode like that. The planes are all intact. The impact kills people, and there may be a fire on board, but you don’t get fireballs from impacts like that. But what’s a Die Hard movie without a bunch of explosions? So I don’t object to the creative license here. 

On Whether or Not the Planes Could Land Via McClane’s “Fire Trail”

David: No, not really. 

Mooney: Probably, yeah, maybe. It’s hard to say because it depends on how snowy it is by that point in the movie. 

On Whether or Not Die Hard 2 is a Christmas Movie

David: Of course it’s a Christmas movie, so is the first one.

Mooney: Oh yeah, 100 percent. It finishes with a Christmas song! I’m not having that row with people anymore — Die Hard is a Christmas movie and Die Hard 2 is a Christmas movie. Any subsequent Die Hards that may or may not exist, they are not Christmas movies, but those first two were for sure. I don’t know why people are still arguing about this — it’s a closed case.

Hopek: No. I didn’t think Christmas at all when I was watching it. Was there anything Christmas related in it? Maybe I missed something.