Dan Brown Doesn’t Know Much about Helicopters

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?

Black Hawk Helicopter

Public domain image of UH-60L by SSGT Suzanne M. Jenkins, USAF from Wikipedia.

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:

Black Hawk Dimensions

Sikorsky UH-60 Black Hawk dimensions public domain line drawing from Wikipedia.

  • 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.

17 thoughts on “Dan Brown Doesn’t Know Much about Helicopters

  1. Hi Maria,

    I just wanted to let you know I found this blog immensely helpful as I am writing a chapter in my book that involves a helicopter ride. I must say that I am striving to find new ways to describe the sound a helicopter makes. It’s rather unmistakable when you actually hear it, but to describe it to a reader is much more difficult. I recently wrote… “the deafening drill of the helicopter’s rotors made conversation impossible…” and one of my proof readers balked at the use of the word “drill.” I’d love to hear your comment on that one!

  2. Ha!

    So funny, I just got done reading page 349 (page one of Chapter 93) where Dan Brown wrote “silent altitude”. I’m not a pilot, but I research aviation a lot and when I come into some money I plan on taking classes for a single engine fixed wing license. So that “silent altitude” thing caught me off guard. I’m like… is there something I don’t know!!!!?!?!?! I found your blog very entertaining and it secured some of the various statements that Dan Brown made that I felt were inaccurate.

    With that said, I believe he’s trying to create scenes that Hollywood will automatically accept for ther adaptation (should a third Langdon film happen). I would imagine that his descriptions of hardware like that are unimportant to him compared to his true intersts… which he very clearly describes – archtiecture, history and so forth. As a I writer, I can certainly confirm that elements of a story I include that aren’t interesting to me often don’t make it to the research point… at least not as much as other elements.

    -E

    • Eric: “Silent altitude” really cracked me up. So did the scene over the glass pyramid atop the building — did you get to that yet? Making it seem as if a nearly empty helicopter would have trouble lifting away from the top of a building in the winter at near sea level. Sheesh.

      I agree: he is trying to write movie scenes. He’s probably been advised to. All that means is that his misinformation will be propagated visually to movie-goers sometime in the future.

  3. M into aeronatutics and aviation at all. but yes, page one of chapter 93 with all its glitz caught my attention. So much that i actually had to google, how a helicopter provides invisible support at “silent altitide”. LOL
    You effort is commendable Maria. Authors should look into these details positively,agreed. but let them be writers only. Had he been so ardent in these minute detaails,you wonder your job would be at stake ;)

  4. I love your articles. I just wanted to comment that there is indeed a three-axis autopilot equipped on many Sikorsky aircraft (civil included) and there is indeed an autohover function available with AGL altitude preselect. Early autohover systems literally used doppler radar to help sense position but more modern units use redundant WAAS GPS, since it’s often equipped for instrument approaches anyway. It’s a real testament to the accuracy of modern GPS!

    • Thanks for sharing this info. Glad you like the blog.

      GPS never ceases to amaze me. Although I’ve never flown an aircraft with an autopilot, I can imagine how great it would be to punch in a waypoint and let the helicopter do the flying for me — especially on the very long cross-country flights I have to do twice a year.

  5. While I haven’t read the book, from the excerpts it certainly appears that Brown didn’t do his homework. In his defense, though, I will say that the last bit about the downwash (the middle sentence there, I’ll ignore the BS about “overdrive”, etc.) does actually make some sense. The reality is that downwash exerts significant pressure on surfaces immediately below he rotor disc, which in the case of a skylight could easily cause a structural failure. Check out this page for a simplified attempt at the math:
    http://www.aviationtoday.com/rw/what_the_experts_are_saying/rotorcraft_aerodynamics/Calculating-Rotor-Downwash-Velocity_75113.html#.UWmq8Mu9KSM

  6. I’ll agree that downwash can exert a lot of pressure. I’m not sure whether I’m willing to concede that it’s enough to strain a skylight, though. But who knows?

    Thanks for taking the time to comment and for sharing that link. I’ll check it out now.

  7. Hi Maria

    I was very entertained by your blog hovering above this comment. I couldn’t agree more with you on the need for research. I am a private fixed wing pilot and I absolutely hate it when people say crass things about flying. I write sci-fi thrillers and occasional zombie books as a way to raise my profile on the internet.

    Even with these essentially fun books I do my research. I am currently writing one that involves the UH60 and was surprised at how many versions there are of them. In fact I was looking to see if any had been fitted with auto-hover capabilities when I came across this blog. I promise I won’t use the silent altitude in my story – apart from the and unique term and obvious plagiarism involved, I doubt he knows the difference between altitude and height anyway.

    I just wanted to say thank you for taking the time to write this, it gave me a good laugh.

    Warm regards
    David

    • And thank you for taking the time to comment — and for reminding me about “silent mode.” I just went back and read the blog post (from 2009!) and gave myself a good early morning chuckle. I’d completely forgotten how many errors there were in that book and how snarky I was when I wrote about them.

  8. I am a Blackhawk pilot. I will attempt to explain: 1. Yes, uh-60 “M” models, which a lot of units including the one right here at ft bragg, have a hover mode. Not a button, but a setting in the using the altimeter, as well as the new chinook model. The author of the blog states downwash can’t blow out a skylight. I’ve sent more than a couple of occupied porta-johns flying with my “minimal” downwash. Overdrive could be a term he used for lockout, it’s a lengthy term to describe to someone who hasn’t been through flight school. I will agree with all his other premises…. For now.

  9. I think a little forgiveness is due to Dan Brown for two reasons:- 1/ he is writing fiction and his descriptions of helicopter operations are pure fiction, and 2/ it is the dissemination of such sensational rubbish that gives us helicopter pilots our charisma and cachet. Lol

  10. I think you’ve been a bit harsh with your criticism, Maria. 1. The description of ‘sleek’ hardly demonstrates a lack of aviation knowledge, nor his adjective ‘defeaning’, which is surely no more than poetic licence. 2. It’s quite possible that there are modifications; most aircraft have mods of one sort or another. 3. Dropping down out of the night and landing hard are not necessarily connected. A tactical arrival might require a rapid descent but it would be stopped before touchdown. Aircraft like this are stressed for hard landings and this is a deliberate technique when you want to land quickly. 4. There are struts; they’re the things that hold the wheels on. SF have been known to sit on these during rapid insertions. 5. Auto-hover is common in high-end machines nowadays. 6. It’s quite feasible that the pilot would have control over TI. Sure, it’s not normally done that way but that doesn’t make it wrong or impossible. 7. The fact that only one pilot was observed does not mean that there wasn’t another somewhere. 8. Criticise the location, by all means, but this says nothing about DB’s aviation knowledge. It would be perfectly possible to land the helicopter anywhere where there’s enough room plus a bit; sure, it might be tight but it would be possible. 9. Warming up is not just a function of the engine, it’s the gear train too. Rotors do get louder as they spin faster; they push more air out of the way and this creates noise. 10. Full pitch. You’re spot on; this should read ‘flat pitch’ or, as you suggest, ‘full speed’. 11. A helicopter which lifts vertically very quickly would cause your stomach to drop since this is the direction of the opposing force. You would only be pushed back in your seat if it accelerated quickly forwards. Helicopters can accelerate very quickly but because they tilt forwards when doing so you don’t feel it in your back anyway. 12. Settling with power, or vortex ring as we know it on this side of the pond, only happens if you descend with minimal airspeed and pull pitch. DB is not saying that the aircraft descended vertically, just that it dropped from the sky. I’d do the same, but I’d keep forward speed on since a) it’s the best way to see where you’re going, and b) it’s the quickest way to get somewhere. 13. Above a few thousand feet most helicopters are able to fly pretty quietly. Maybe not silently but certainly quietly enough that they’d not be heard above traffic. 14. Overdrive? What the heck? Yes, a very bad error there. 15. If the aircraft weighs 6000lb then the rotor delivers 6000lb of downwash equivalent. If it didn’t then the aircraft would descend. Basic physics. 16. Helicopters don’t usually have wings, they have blades. If you’re going to criticise DB’s use of terminology then get it right yourself, eh?

    As a helicopter pilot I’m surprised you weren’t more accurate in your criticism. My credentials, in case you’re interested: 6000+ hours of helicopter time over 30+ years. Instructor and examiner for most of that time, civil and military, heavy and light aircraft, VFR & IFR.

    • Are you friends with Dan Brown or something? You seem pretty dedicated to proving him right when he’s so obviously missed the boat on this.

      Or is it just more important for you to prove me wrong? If that’s the case, don’t waste your time. Others have and they haven’t gotten much satisfaction out of it. There’s a limit to what I’ll tolerate here. I’m sure you know at least one pilot who has reached that limit. Maybe he sent you?

      • It’s your blog, Maria, so tolerate what you like and delete the rest. I was simply keen to point out that a lot of your comments were incorrect, just in case any non-pilots got the wrong idea. I don’t think DB missed the point at all; yes, he got a few things wrong but he’s an author and when have you ever known an author get everything right. It’s entertainment and you need to chill a little, I think. I have no interest in proving you wrong per se, but it’s important to me that non-pilots reading your blog realise that many of your criticisms of the book are misguided.

        • I don’t agree and many other pilots seem to share my views. But we’ll leave it there. I’m not going to debate the individual points presented in an old blog post. I think my original words speak for themselves.

What do you think?