20 August 1999

Angels' Flights

Any time of day, the sky is filled with souls, shot from city to city thanks to advanced avionics and the endless human capacity for denial. Aloft, there is always the potential for sudden, violent death.

Or is there? In the introduction to "The Black Box,” author Malcolm MacPherson points out that the number of aviation accidents has plummeted since the early 1960s. In 1996, the 394 aviation-related deaths in the United States barely compared to almost 42,000 people killed in automobile accidents. In 1993, only one person died in an aviation-related incident in the United States—a man struck by a propeller blade on the ground.

It’s amusing, then, that these reassurances precede transcripts of the final moments of twenty-eight in-flight accidents. Between the road-hazard orange paperback covers of “The Black Box,” mundane dialogues between co-workers make for compelling reading. Among the higher profile air disasters in MacPherson’s book, there’s the final cockpit commentary from the 1996 ValuJet crash in the Everglades and the 1994 American Eagle flight that iced up after leaving O'Hare and crashed into an Indiana soybean field, killing sixty-four.

]I was perverse enough to take the book on a cross-country flight. Maybe I would rediscover a fear of airplanes. Or perhaps I could provoke someone with the simple obscenity, the talismanic rudeness of reading the book while flying.
There is an airline that allows you to listen in to the cockpit conversation, at least until there is commotion in the air, when the channel usually cuts out abruptly. You ride the turbulence that follows inside a cloud of their radio silence.
MacPherson does not cut away. Indeed, most of the transcripts begin after the first instant of potential disaster. The first few are outright horror shows, with MacPherson's commentary concluding with variations on "All aboard were lost," lending a timeless maritime feel to the tragedies.

It’s time to order a glass of the rotten in-flight wine. The cabin crews complain about warm drinks and bad food. They talk about wives and bad bosses, just another day on the job until, say, a goose is sucked into one of the engines.
A captain whose plane eventually crashed into the side of a Colombian mountain complains of cockpit fatigue: "Yeah, a friend of mine... uh, he used to fly that Sao Paulo [route] all of that time—you're fuckin' killing yourself doin' that shit. You really need that extra couple hundred bucks a month or whatever when it comes to retirement?" Their fatigue leads to a series of small missteps, no single one of which would have led to disaster, but together led to a loss of what NTSB investigators might call "situational awareness."

Six or seven miles below me, the crosshatch of crops gives way to desert, to timeless tectonic guttering, the chasms into which one could hurtle, through curtains of flame, falling below and beyond. My heart races a touch at the thought. The plane shudders forward through a pocket of choppy air. A few gasps issue through the cabin, followed antiseptic, industrial calm.

The sun sets. I read more transcripts. A simple line: "CABIN: [Screams]." I read faster, skimming past moments of confusion, unequivocal declarations of "Shit!" and "Goddammit!" and "We're goin' in, we're goin' down."

The most painfully ironic moment comes from a flight in which a co-pilot leaves a personal message just before a fiery crash: "Amy, I love you." The man survived despite burns over eighty percent of his body. MacPherson does not annotate the message.

The authenticity of the terror would work in no other medium. In fact, the documentary banality is part of the book's power, even in a chair bolted to terra firma. There is also the expectation that mayhem of an apocalyptic fervor will conclude each portentous passage.

Yet MacPherson has the good taste to end with a remarkable twenty-two page chronicle of a veteran, 58-year-old DC-10 pilot working through a forty-one minute nightmare, drawing on years of experience, the ability to stay calm, even a folksy sense of humor. His efforts saved the lives of most of his passengers after an engine explosion disabled all steering mechanisms. While an exception among the terrors documented in "The Black Box," this triumph of professionalism is, statistics show, the norm in the air.

Maybe that’s why in the two hours that it took me to zoom through "The Black Box," no one noted my choice of reading material. Everyone remained cocooned in the particulars of their destinations, responsibilities, fears.

The Black Box: All-New Cockpit Voice Recorder Accounts of In-flight Accidents
Malcolm MacPherson
Quill, 190 pages, $15

[Newcity, 20 August 1999]