I wanted to ask about something that, as an aviation enthusiast I have never seen before, from the movie Flight with Denzel Washington. Perhaps the reason is is because it's a movie.

Manual control

You pull these up, turn them clockwise, and push them back down. Something about "reverting manual control". I have never seen anything like those handles in a jet cockpit before.

The handle is used in a scene in this YouTube video (blocked in many countries, alternative video, also blocked) between 2:34 and 3:40.

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    $\begingroup$ If you search under "reverting to manual controls" as mentioned in the script, you may find enough information to answer your question. Otherwise I'm sure someone here will recognize the aircraft type and offer a good answer on the context of what's happening in this scene. $\endgroup$ Commented Feb 7, 2023 at 20:15
  • $\begingroup$ Comment not an answer because I'm not a pilot... but I'm almost certain those "revert to manual control" handles are not part of real jets. The autopilot disconnect switch is just that, a switch—usually button switch and usually on the center console. Not a big mechanically-linked handle. $\endgroup$
    – randomhead
    Commented Feb 8, 2023 at 0:42
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    $\begingroup$ @randomhead The Autopilot disconnect is on the yoke where a pilot with 1 hand on the yoke & 1 on the throttles can reach it immediately. Turning off the A/P on the center Mode Control Panel (same switch/button that engages it) will work too. I'll defer to a DC-9 pilot on that handle, but like you I suspect it's movie dramatics... on a Boeing, manual reversion simply happens when the hydraulic pressure is gone. There's a switch you turn on to get a standby pump powering the rudder, but you have aileron/elevators immediately. That movie got so much so wildly wrong, this detail too, probably. $\endgroup$
    – Ralph J
    Commented Feb 8, 2023 at 0:46
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    $\begingroup$ Movies do get a lot wrong, and I've never flown a plane with this exact system, but I have enough experience that it's believable that an older plane with hydraulically boosted controls would have a large T handle to mechanically disconnect a failed system and revert to an emergency backup mode. Hoping someone here will validate that opinion with a credible answer... $\endgroup$ Commented Feb 8, 2023 at 0:57
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    $\begingroup$ The lever is what's known as a 'plot device'. $\endgroup$
    – GdD
    Commented Feb 8, 2023 at 16:47

2 Answers 2


The movie Flight (2012) shows a McDonnell Douglas MD-80 series aircraft (same as Alaska Airlines Flight 261, on which it is loosely based). There is no such handle in an MD-80 cockpit. Compare the following scene from the movie (left) with a photo of a real MD-80 cockpit aft pedestal (right):

MD-80 aft pedestal comparison
(left: cropped from YouTube video, right: modified from hilmerby.com)

In the movie, the captain says

We gotta revert to manual control

This does not make sense for an MD-80 because ailerons and elevator are always under manual control (only the rudder is hydraulically powered with manual reversion):

Lateral Control System

Control column wheels are used for lateral control. Control wheels are cable connected to an aileron control tab and are linked together by a torque tube arrangement that causes both control wheels to move together. [...]
Aerodynamic forces on the control tabs move the ailerons. [...]

Longitudinal Control System

The longitudinal control system is a pair of elevators attached to the horizontal stabilizer. The elevator control is, for all normal flying, an aerodynamic boost system that operates a single control tab on each elevator. Each control tab is driven by an independent two-way cable system from the corresponding control column in the cockpit.

(MD-80 Flight Manual - Section 11 Flight Controls)

There is a hydraulic boost system for the elevator, but that is only active during high angle-of-attack situations:

A 3000 psi hydraulic power augmentor system provides elevator control for additional nosedown capability in extreme, high angle-of-attack flight conditions.

(MD-80 Flight Manual - Section 11 Flight Controls)

By the way, the real accident was caused by a failure in the trimmable horizontal stabilizer (THS) assembly (and the THS is powered electrically, not hydraulically; you can see the stabilizer trim primary motor brake switch under the red cover in the right photo above):

The National Transportation Safety Board determines that the probable cause of this accident was a loss of airplane pitch control resulting from the in-flight failure of the horizontal stabilizer trim system jackscrew assembly's acme nut threads. The thread failure was caused by excessive wear resulting from Alaska Airlines' insufficient lubrication of the jackscrew assembly.

(NTSB final report for ASA261 3.2 Probable Cause)

  • $\begingroup$ Wow. Just as I thought. Completely made up. Thank you for such a detailed answer with references to manuals and the NTSB report for Alaska 261. Well done. $\endgroup$
    – QMan2488
    Commented Feb 9, 2023 at 7:12

I watched the clip and was glad I didn't go see the movie because I would've been screaming in the theatre will all the made up nonsense and ridiculous procedural depictions (no crew acts like that), and eventually walked out. Just infuriating, because the public comes away thinking that's how things are done.

You should assume ANY technical detail you see in a movie is the made up imaginings of a screen writer, except with rare exceptions, like Apollo 13. There almost certainly would have been a debate between the screen writer and the technical consultant on the movie, who would've been similarly ranting about the technical details, but procedural and technical realism might have taken the edge off the drama so the producer would go with the screen writer.

In the real world, a T-handle in an airliner cockpit will most likely be for one of 3 things:

  1. To disconnect left and right control systems for pitch or roll control in case of a mechanical system jam in a conventional system with control cable circuits. They will be pull and turn to lock, and normally located up on the center console somewhere in prominent spots, releasing a lock that allows each side of a torque tube below the cockpit floor, that joins the left and right elevator or aileron control systems, to move independently.
  2. To operate an hydraulic dump valve for the landing gear for emergency extension. Pull and turn to open the hydraulic circuit to the gear actuators so the actuators can't impede the gears' freefall down.
  3. Parking brake. Pull and turn to lock, sometimes while holding the brake pedals forward, to lock the brakes on.

A handle that is not painted with a red/white or black/yellow barber pole pattern with prominent labelling, like the one in the picture, I would assume is a parking brake, although I would make sure before I tried to use it.

When the copilot pulls the T handle on the right side, in a normal world that would have been pulling a pitch disconnect to allow the left and right elevators to move independently, which is what you do with an elevator jam or runwaway. Unfortunately the dialog is total gibberish.

So treat all movies, except those that went to specific lengths to depict things accurately, as "science fiction", and temporarily suspend disbelief. Good idea to extend this to all films depicting any technical topic, like, say, nuclear power. And news reporting, while you're at it...

  • $\begingroup$ Ars you a pilot? This is also an outstanding answer. I'd mark them both as answers if I could. Thank you. $\endgroup$
    – QMan2488
    Commented Feb 9, 2023 at 7:15
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    $\begingroup$ Thanks, Yes I learned to fly in 1975, ex bush pilot, have a type rating on CRJs, and was a tech support engineering specialist for many years on the CRJ program. $\endgroup$
    – John K
    Commented Feb 9, 2023 at 14:05

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