Flying inverted

Q. In the 2012 film “Flight,” Denzel Washington as Capt. Whip Whitaker crash lands his fictional JR-88 by flying it upside down, after the plane’s elevators become stuck. Justify in terms of physics and technology why this maneuver would or wouldn’t be worth a shot in an actual emergency.

Draft a response of 250 words or fewer and email it to

ICY RUNWAY: We asked you to explain whether an airliner that was being chased by zombies could take off from an ice-covered runway.

Your responses were reviewed by Jeff Eldredge, a professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, who submitted the puzzler. Here is the top submission:

WINNING RESPONSE: This sounds like the hypothetical situation in which an airplane takes off from a treadmill rotating in the opposite direction of its movement. Assuming the airplane is able to maintain directional control adequately through coordinated use of differential engine thrust and rudder movement, the engines would only be overcoming the very low friction between the wheels (which may or may not rotate) and icy surface as well as the typical airframe drag. In short, yes, the aircraft would be capable of performing its takeoff to avoid the zombie apocalypse.

Devin Boyle
NASA’s Glenn Research Center
Flight Vehicle Acoustics
Amherst, Ohio

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Flying inverted