An airline pilot saves a flight from crashing, but an investigation into the malfunctions reveals something troubling.
Airline captain William ‘Whip’ Whitaker (Denzel Washington) awakens in his Orlando hotel room with flight attendant Katerina Marquez (Nadine Velazquez) after a night of sex, alcohol, and very little sleep.
After using cocaine to wake up, he pilots a flight to Atlanta. During takeoff the flight encounters intense turbulence. After reaching cruising altitude, Copilot Ken Evans (Brian Geraghty) flies the plane while Whip discreetly mixes himself a drink and then takes a nap. A few minutes before final descent Whip is jolted awake by a mechanical noise. The plane goes into a steep dive, and after failing to achieve any pitch control, Whip rolls the plane into an inverted position to bring it out of the dive and then maneuvers the plane right-side up just before crash-landing in a field. He loses consciousness upon impact.
Whip awakens in an Atlanta hospital without serious injury. He is greeted by Charlie Anderson (Bruce Greenwood), a former pilot and colleague, now a representative in the airline’s pilots union. He tells Whip his heroism saved 96 of 102 people on board. An NTSB official informs him Katerina was among those killed.
The next night in the hospital, Whip meets Nicole (Kelly Reilly), who is recovering from a heroin overdose. Whip promises to visit her when they leave the hospital. In the morning, his friend and drug dealer, Harling Mays (John Goodman), picks him up and takes him to Whip’s late father’s farm, where Whip hopes to avoid media interviews. Later he drives into the city to meet Charlie and attorney Hugh Lang (Don Cheadle). They reveal that the NTSB performed a toxicology screen while he was unconscious in the hospital that revealed his alcohol intoxication and drug use, which could result in Whip going to prison on both drug and manslaughter charges. Lang says he can evade the NTSB by having the toxicology report deemed inadmissible by technicality. On his way home, Whip passes Nicole’s apartment, decides to visit, and sees her being evicted. Whip offers to let her stay at the farm.
Nicole and Whip begin a romantic relationship, but the stress of the NTSB investigation exacerbates Whip’s alcoholism and he drives her away. The media discover his farmhouse, forcing him to stay elsewhere. In a drunken stupor, he visits his estranged ex-wife and son, but has to be escorted from the house when his ex-wife calls the police. He stays with Charlie, and is forced to stop drinking ahead of the upcoming NTSB hearing.
The night before the hearing, Charlie and Hugh check Whip into a guarded hotel room to ensure he does not get drunk. The refrigerator in the hotel room is stocked with only nonalcoholic beverages, but Whip discovers that the door to the adjoining room is open and finds alcohol in its refrigerator. Charlie and Hugh find him the next morning passed out and drunk. He has them call Harling, who brings him cocaine to perk him up for the hearing.
At the hearing, Ellen Block (Melissa Leo), the lead NTSB investigator, reveals that the cause of the plane’s malfunction was a broken jackscrew in the elevator assembly. She commends Whip on his valor, pointing out no other pilots were able to land the plane safely under the same circumstances in simulations. She knows about his toxicology results but just as it appears Whip will escape culpability, Block raises the fact that there were two empty alcohol containers found in the trash on the plane; Whip knows these were his. Block points out that only the flight crew had access to the alcohol, and since only Katerina’s toxicology screen showed alcohol, Block asks Whitaker whether he thinks Katerina may have been drinking on the job. Whip refuses to taint Katerina’s good name and not only admits that he was flying drunk, but that he is drunk right then at the hearing. Sometime later, an imprisoned Whip tells a prison counseling group that he is glad to be sober and does not regret doing the right thing, because he finally feels that he is “free.” He thereafter reconnects with Nicole and works to mend the relationship with his estranged son.