I guess a best-selling author doesn’t need to check his facts.
A few weeks ago, I forced myself to slog through Dan Brown’s The Lost Symbol. I’m trying really hard to understand why people like this guy’s work. He’s a gawdawful writer. Have we become a nation of illiterates?
As a helicopter pilot, I’m really sensitive to errors about helicopters that appear in fiction. The Lost Symbol was chock full of them. Apparently, it’s too much to ask Dan Brown to take a peek at Wikipedia or talk to a helicopter pilot when writing passages that concern helicopters. It makes me wonder what other “facts” he got wrong.
This bugged me so much at the time that I wrote a post title “Facts in Fiction,” where I discuss the failure of novelists to check the real-life components of their fictional worlds. I wanted to include a discussion of Brown’s failures in that post, but didn’t have time to complete it. Instead, I’ll cover them here.
These are the passages that bugged me most:
Without warning, Omar felt a deafening vibration all around him, as if a tractor trailer were about to collide with his cab. He looked up, but the street was deserted. The noise increased, and suddenly a sleek black helicopter dropped down out of the night and landed hard in the middle of the plaza map.
Deafening vibration? We get it: helicopters are loud. But do they deafen with their vibrations?
The “sleek black helicopter” he’s describing is a “Modified Sikorsky UH-60,” which is basically a Black Hawk. I’m not sure what kind of modifications Brown is talking about — there are many versions of this helicopter. I’m also not sure I’d use the adjective “sleek.”
But what bothers me more is how it “dropped down out of the night and landed hard” — if it “dropped out of the night,” it would indeed “land hard.” This poor helicopter “landed hard” three times in the book. I think the CIA should consider getting a new pilot.
CIA field agent Turner Simkins was perched on the strut of the Sikorsky helicopter as it touched down on the frosty grass. He leaped off, joined by his men, and immediately waved the chopper back up into the air to keep an eye on all the exits.
“Perched on the strut,” huh? Not perched on a skid? Oh, yeah, that’s right: A Black Hawk doesn’t have skids. It has wheels. If someone can tell me where a Black Hawk’s perchable strut is, please do.
High above the National Cathedral, the CIA pilot locked the helicopter in auto-hover mode and surveyed the perimeter of the building and the grounds. No movement. His thermal imaging couldn’t penetrate the cathedral stone, and so he couldn’t tell what the team was doing inside, but if anyone tried to slip out, the thermal would pick it up.
I honestly don’t know if there’s an auto pilot in a Black Hawk or whether it has an “auto-hover mode.” I suppose I could research this and find out. But I do know that there’s no way in hell that a CIA Black Hawk pilot (if there is such a thing) would be responsible for flying a helicopter and doing overhead surveillance using thermal imaging at the same time. Pilots fly, on-board observers observe.
As they rounded the corner at the top of the stairs, Katherine stopped short and pointed into a sitting room across the hall. Through the bay window, Langdon could see a sleek black helicopter sitting silent on the lawn. A lone pilot stood beside it, facing away from them and talking on his radio. There was also a black Escalade with tinted windows parked nearby.
Hello? Mr. Brown? A Black Hawk has a crew of two pilots. The original Black Hawk had a crew of four pilots. Yet the book consistently uses the word pilot — a singular noun — when referring to the person flying the helicopter. I guess it’s easier to write one character than two.
The modified UH-60 skimmed in low over the expansive rooftops of Kalorama Heights, thundering toward the coordinates given to them by the support team. Agent Simkins was the first to spot the black Escalade parked haphazardly on a lawn in front of one of the mansions. The driveway gate was closed, and the house was dark and quiet.
Sato gave the signal to touch down.
The aircraft landed hard on the front lawn amid several other vehicles . . . one of them a security sedan with a bubble light on top.
Google Maps shows Kalorama Heights to be a densely populated area of Washington, D.C. filled primarily with embassies. This is an especially poor location for the bad guy’s lair:
- An area filled with embassies is likely to have very, very tight security. It’s unlikely that the events Brown reports could happen at a “mansion” there without anyone noticing and calling the police.
- Properties are not large — not in relation to the buildings on them. The fronts of buildings are generally right up on the street. It would be a stretch to park multiple vehicles on a lawn.
- The area is heavily vegetated with lots of tall trees. This makes me wonder how a helicopter that’s almost 65 feet long and has a rotor diameter of nearly 54 feet can land on a lawn full of parked cars in this area.
So we’ve got a big helicopter and some loud activity happening in a densely populated, heavily treed embassy area of Washington, D.C.
Sato moved the group toward the dining room. Outside, the helicopter was warming up, its blades thundering louder and louder.
Warming up is a function of the engine. The blade sound would not be different. Spinning up is a function of the blades. In either case, the sound of the blades would not get louder. If the helicopter were spinning up, the sound of the blades — the rhythm of the blades — would get faster.
Sato could hear the whine of the helicopter blades at full pitch.
Pitch is a poor choice of words here. “Helicopter blades at full pitch” literally means the collective is full up. The helicopter should be flying, not on the ground (as it is in this passage). Full speed — meaning that they’re spinning at 100% RPM — is probably what Brown meant here.
Langdon felt his stomach drop as the CIA helicopter leaped off the lawn, banked hard, and accelerated faster than he ever imagined a helicopter could move.
This is a classic ignorant writer passage. If the helicopter could leap off the lawn — which it might, depending on load — Langdon’s stomach wouldn’t drop. He might feel pushed back in his seat. The only time you’re likely to feel a helicopter motion in your stomach is if the helicopter entered autorotation, which feels — especially the first time — as if you’ve crested the top hill of a kiddie roller coaster and are suddenly zipping downward.
As for accelerating fast, I don’t know much about Robert Langdon’s imagination, but helicopters generally don’t accelerate quickly. It’s not like slamming down the gas pedal in a Ferrari in first gear. (In fact, one of the challenges I face when photographing car and boat races is catching up to a high-speed car or boat that has passed us while we’re hovering.) Can’t say I’ve flown a Black Hawk lately, though.
Langdon held his breath as the helicopter dropped from the sky toward Dupont Circle. A handful of pedestrians scattered as the aircraft descended through an opening in the trees and landed hard on the lawn just south of the famous two-tiered fountain designed by the same two men who created the Lincoln Memorial.
There’s that hard-landing helicopter again. Maybe the problem is that Brown — and most of the rest of the population — doesn’t understand that helicopters don’t just “drop out of the sky” to land. There’s a thing called “settling with power” that will basically ensure a very hard landing if you descend too quickly straight down.
And don’t even get me started on the encyclopedic fact that has nothing to do with the plot, fouling up the end of that sentence.
Once everyone had jumped out, the pilot immediately lifted off, banking to the east, where he would climb to “silent altitude” and provide invisible support from above.
Silent altitude? What’s that? About 50,000 feet? I don’t know of any altitude above a point where a helicopter would be silent — especially if it still had to provide “invisible support” — whatever that is. I look forward to the day when the words silent and helicopter can be used in the same sentence as adjective describing noun.
The UH-60 pilot threw his rotors into overdrive, trying to keep his skids from touching any part of the large glass skylight. He knew the six thousand pounds of lift force that surged downward from his rotors was already straining the glass to its breaking point. Unfortunately, the incline of the pyramid beneath the helicopter was efficiently shedding the thrust sideways, robbing him of lift.
He threw his rotors into what? What the hell is that supposed to mean? And what’s with the “six thousand pounds of lift force” surging down from this rotors? Is he trying to say that rotor wash is exerting 6,000 pounds of force?
Hello? Helicopters do not work just like big fans blowing air down to fly. They have wings, just like airplanes do. Airfoils create the lift that makes a helicopter fly. Downwash just helps a bit when the helicopter is near the ground. That’s called ground effect.
And let’s look at this in real life — the helicopter had only 2 or 3 people on board. It had already discharged its passengers. Is Brown trying to say that the pilot was depending on ground effect to fly? On a winter night (cold; it landed on “frosty grass” once) in Washington DC (sea level)? How did it get off the ground with passengers on board — let alone leap into the sky — if it couldn’t even hover out of ground effect when it was nearly empty?
And what’s all this about skids? Didn’t we already establish that the Black Hawk has wheels? If you can’t read the words, Mr. Brown, at least look at the pictures.
Errors like this just prove that the writer has no understanding of how helicopters fly. Yet this and many of the other helicopter-related errors in this book could have been prevented if the passages were handed off to an experienced helicopter pilot as part of the editing process.
But I guess a bestselling author is beyond all that.