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5 Nail-Biting Air Traffic Controller Monitor Movie Moments

Here's 5 moments from airplane movies that often go unnoticed.

Airline disasters can make for some terrifying and thrilling movie moments, most precipitated by that classic scene where the hapless air traffic controller must watch the dots on the screen and hope their pushing tin in all the right directions. We love those parts. Here’s 5 nail-biting air traffic controller movie moments you’ve got to see.

Die Hard 2 (1990)

Air Traffic Controller
Die Hard 2, 1990 © 20th Century Fox

Poor John McCLane (Bruce Willis) is at it again in this action-packed follow-up to Die Hard, where he stopped a group of terrorists (thieves) in Los Angeles. Now’s he is in Washington D.C. and a rogue U.S. Army Special Forces Colonel named William Stuart (William Sadler) has taken over the airport in order to smuggle in a captured Central American general. In this frightening moment, Stuart, in retribution for attempts to stop him, decides to take drastic action, altering the ground level indicators for an incoming flight. The controllers can do nothing but watch in horror as McClane does all he can to stop a disaster. “Recalibrate sea level … minus 200 feet.”

Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)

Air Traffic Controller
Close Encounters of the Third Kind, 1979 © Columbia Pictures

This epic science fiction movie about aliens who visit Earth is one of the most celebrated in the genre with a unique and challenging film written and directed by Steven Spielberg. Focusing on a man (Richard Dreyfuss) who does indeed have a close encounter, it sends him on an odyssey to discover the truth while an internal calling has him venturing to places he’d never thought before. In one of the movie’s remarkable opening shots, a group of air traffic controllers in Indianapolis sit hovered over a monitor as they listen to passenger jet airline pilots who are clearly having an encounter all their own but are unsure what to make of it. Spine-tingling moment seen only from inside the control room. “Do you want to report a UFO?”

Sully (2016)

Air Traffic Controller
Sully, 2016 © Warner Bros. Pictures

Clint Eastwood‘s dramatic interpretation of the river landing of US Airways Flight 1549 stars Tom Hanks as Captain Sully, the pilot of the airplane credited with saving the lives of all passengers and crew when an accident forces the plane down. That might seem like a spoiler, but if you were alive in 2009, that’s all anyone talked about, and deservedly so. It’s was a remarkable achievement by not just Sully but so many others, and while the film points most of its focus on the good captain, that is the message. Either way, there is an intense re-creation of the event, including the air traffic controller who was witness to the action, desperate to give the plane a safe place to land. It’s a sensational moment that gives some humanity to the other side of the accident. “Both engines gone. No thrust.”

Airport (1970)

Air Traffic Controller
Airport, 1970 © Universal Pictures

While the Airport series became almost a parody of itself, leading to the greatest parody of all time (see below), the original is still a well-made thriller with a great story and some terrific special effects, given the times. Starring Dean Martin, Burt Lancaster and a large ensemble cast, the story follows an airport besieged by an unusual snowstorm that has already sent one airplane skidding off the main runway, causing it to shut down. Worse, another plane still in the air has a madman on board with a bomb, and after he sets it off, the plane needs to land. Only one choice and a tense scene between the pilot (Martin), controllers, and the airport manager (Lancaster) leads to some dangerous choices. Classic split-screen moment in a classic thriller. “Clear that runway!”

Airplane (1980)

Air Traffic Controller
Airplane, 1980 © Paramount Pictures

So this is supposed to be a list of nail-biters, and while Airplane is in fact one of the funniest comedies ever made, credit must be given to the filmmakers in making the finale rather suspenseful, even if you can’t stop laughing. The now iconic story is a collection of sight gags and irreverent humor based on wordplay and one-liners, but it loosely follows a former pilot named Ted Striker (Robert Hays) whose became traumatized during a War. He boards an airliner in hopes of talking his girlfriend Elaine Dickinson (Julie Hagerty) – one of the flight attendants – from leaving him. Either way, comedic chaos strikes the plane when the crew and many of the passengers get sick, forcing Striker to take the helm, and as the tower down at the airport desperately try to guide him in (sort of), we get a shot of the controllers playing Atari 2600 Basketball on one of the monitors, predating the Galaga gag in Avengers by 32 years.