(Spoiler alert: Don’t read this if you haven’t seen “Dunkirk.” Also: Go see “Dunkirk.”)
In filming “Dunkirk,” Christopher Nolan developed special IMAX camera rigs in order to make the movie’s perilous flight sequences look genuine. You’re right with Tom Hardy in the cockpit, and the whole experience feels jarringly real.
But are the feats of heroics in Nolan’s film accurate to the period? Just how long could Hardy’s fighter plane have stayed in the air once it ran out of fuel?
In the film, Hardy engages in a dogfight and finds his fuel gauge has been cracked. He radios to his fellow pilot and scratches in chalk, “50” and “14:30,” as in how many gallons of fuel he has left, and when it will run out.
Many of the planes flown and lost during at the Dunkirk evacuation were the Supermarine Spitfire, a single-seat fighter aircraft used by the Royal Air Force. They burned through fuel much faster when dogfighting than cruising, and Hardy’s character does a lot of fighting.
This point is especially important near the end of the film. Hardy’s plane has completely run out of fuel and his propeller has even stopped turning. He manages to glide around and out of nowhere save the day as more of the soldiers on the beaches are trying to escape. He’s then able to cruise for seemingly miles and even land safely on the beach, only for the enemy soldiers to find him.
Believe it or not, the BBC reported that after the war attempts were made to make Spitfires break the sound barrier. Like Hardy, one pilot was able to successfully glide and navigate his plane down safely after the propeller had broken off completely.
What’s more, a USA Today Q&A with a pilot posed the question of how far a jetliner could glide if the engine quit at 30,000 feet. While it would vary in the wind, the pilot estimated that it could travel for another 100 miles. An older, smaller plane like the Spitfire would cruise at only 20,000 feet, and it’s 78.5 miles from Dover, England to Dunkirk — so even after the Spitfire’s dogfights, the distance it traveled in the film without a propeller was well within the range of possibility.