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An Airline Pilot Fact Checks the Hijack Finale's 'Miraculous' Landing

It would have been "excruciatingly hard" for Kingdom Airlines 29 to make it to the ground safely — even without a terrorist incident on board.
  • Idris Elba in Hijack (Photo: Apple TV+)
    Idris Elba in Hijack (Photo: Apple TV+)

    [Editor's Note: This post contains spoilers for the Hijack finale, "Brace Brace Brace."]

    There's no denying that the creative team behind Hijack sought to authentically depict the chaos aboard Kingdom Airlines Flight 29. Even before a group of armed hijackers overtake the cockpit — a storyline that plays out in real time across seven episodes — the Idris Elba-led Apple TV+ thriller grounds its story in the relatable terror of being trapped in a confined space with stressed out strangers. To best convey these anxieties, creators George Kay and Jim Field Smith and production designer Andrew Purcell built a 164-foot set, filled it with real flight instruments, including a simulator showing KA29's route from Dubai to London, and utilized volume screens and adjustable lighting to mimic the sun's movement over the course of the flight. As Smith said in a behind-the-scenes featurette, "We've paid attention to every last detail."

    Intention is one thing, but how well did Hijack execute this difficult challenge? Primetimer spoke to a pilot for a major U.S. airline, who requested anonymity, about the limited series, and she deems it considerably more realistic than other shows or movies set on planes, particularly when it comes to the flight displays and Captain Robin Allen's (Ben Miles) early attempts to signal distress by changing the heading by 3 degrees.

    "Air traffic control, for the most part, has everyone on a radar screen, so when they see you deviating, it not only becomes a risk to surrounding planes, but they're like, 'Where are you going?'" she says. "In my opinion, it was a good idea on his part to do that."

    Due to the frequent deviations, KA29 runs out of fuel earlier than expected, resulting in a catastrophic engine failure in the finale, "Brace Brace Brace." Though the type of plane — most likely an Airbus A330, she tells us — can fly for over 17 hours without stopping, airlines are only required to "give you enough fuel to go to your destination plus 45 minutes," so it's possible that the plane could have burned all its fuel during the seven-hour flight. "If they were up there screwing around for an extra 45 minutes, then that would totally be likely," she says.

    The Hijack team seems to have done their research into the aftermath of a fuel shortage. "That was totally accurate, them flaming out, running out of fuel, losing both engines," the pilot explains. "There's a temporary loss of power. And the woman in air traffic control who was like, 'Run the ram air turbine' — the ram air turbine would've automatically come out with a loss of power in that airplane and would've restored power."

    However, for everything Hijack gets correct, there's three more "elements requiring a suspension of disbelief" — starting with the hijacking itself. In the premiere, before the hijackers take over the flight deck, the pilots alert air traffic control to a "definite security incident onboard," but once the terrorists assume control of the plane, they force Captain Allen to backtrack and say it was a "false alarm." Shockingly, Dubai air traffic control believes him, and KA29 continues on its way toward London.

    "The part that would make this so improbable is you can't renege. You can't say, 'Just kidding, we're actually fine!'" says our pilot source, who explains that's the case regardless of the scenario. "If someone was having a heart attack on board and you said, 'I'm having an emergency, I need to land this plane right now,' and then the person passes away or becomes fine, you can't say, 'Just kidding. We're going to keep going.' There's no undoing it."

    Though she can't describe the Federal Aviation Administration's specific terrorism protocols because "it would be a national security risk," she adds that this policy was designed with situations like Hijack's in mind. "The part in which they say to Dubai, 'We're fine, actually!' because the terrorists then are like, 'Say you're fine,' that scenario has been thought of, and to prevent that, you can't undo it," she explains. "Because they know that there could be a certain point at which the cockpit is breached, and there's no going back."

    And while the finale depicts parts of the fuel crisis accurately, it also takes liberties with the dramatic sequence in which Sam (Elba) and Amanda (Holly Aird), whose family is being held hostage by the organized crime syndicate behind the hijacking, are coached into landing the plane. Air traffic controller Alice Sinclair (Eve Myles) tells Sam and Amanda that there's a small airport 6.9 miles away, but without any power or engine thrust, they must glide over London before manually lowering the landing gears and hitting the brakes. The plane touches down in what our source describes as a "controlled crash," at which point it skids forward, the engines explode, and pieces of metal fly through the air.

    "They wouldn't have been able to maintain altitude for that long. If you take the Sully landing [on US Airways Flight 1549] — same aircraft, an Airbus — look at how long it took for them to go from about 2,000 feet, losing power completely, flaming out, to then being in the Hudson River. It was like two minutes," she tells Primetimer. "The aircraft cannot just float. At a certain point, gravity takes over and you just become a giant hang glider. The fact that they were turning, that they were 6.9 miles away from an airport at 900 feet — generally, with power to the engines, you are at 1,000 feet about a mile and a half from an airport. So with no engines, they would've needed to be at like 6,000 to 8,000 feet that far away to glide in."

    "In my opinion, they did not have the altitude or the energy with a dual-engine flameout to successfully make the runway without crashing into downtown London," she adds.

    Not to mention, the airport's short runway would have created yet another obstacle. "5,000 feet of runway is really f*cking short," says the pilot, pointing to Denver's 16,000-foot and JFK's 12,000-foot runways as examples of preferred lengths. "The fact that they were able to land an Airbus 330 on the first half of this 5,000-foot runway is miraculous. Good job, Amanda."

    Amanda was selected by the hijackers because of her background — she's an aviation consultant and a former member of the Royal Navy — but the pilot is skeptical that Amanda could have gotten KA29 safely to the ground, even with her aviation experience and a fully functional aircraft.

    "With the background that she has, and even with the background I have — to safely land an airplane takes so many hundreds of thousands of things going correctly, in a normal scenario," she continues. "We practice events in the simulator that you have lost your engines, you have lost the flight computer, you have lost all of that, and maneuvering the aircraft — without that adrenaline, without the threat of your family being killed, without being shot and having blood dripping from you — all those things considered, in a perfectly neutral, calm, safe environment, it is borderline impossible. It's excruciatingly hard to pull that stuff off."

    "What's so funny is that this timed really well with the recent poll saying that half of U.S. adult men think they could land an airplane in an emergency. I don't think this helps the cause," the pilot says with a laugh. "I'm sure there's a lot of men sitting at home watching this and saying, 'I could've done better.'"

    Given its shortcomings, Hijack has yet to catch on within the pilot community. "The people I've talked about it with aren't watching because they equate it to Lost and Manifest, where the disconnect from reality is so great that it just makes you cringe," she explains, likening the situation to "a surgeon watching Grey's Anatomy" and hyper-fixating on the medical inaccuracies. That said, her parents are watching Hijack, and it's "given [her] mom a few nightmares because she, as a non-pilot, average citizen, doesn't know how unrealistic these situations are."

    "It's TV — it's drama," the pilot says. "But it is so out of left field that you can't really enjoy it. You watch it and you just stare at the screen wondering how they came up with something so far-fetched."

    Hijack is now streaming in its entirety on Apple TV+. Join the discussion about the show in our forums.

    Claire Spellberg Lustig is the Senior Editor at Primetimer and a scholar of The View. Follow her on Twitter at @c_spellberg.

    TOPICS: Hijack, Apple TV+, Ben Miles, George Kay, Holly Aird, Idris Elba, Jim Field Smith