A couple seconds after the airplane’s wings shear off the treetops, the airspeed starts to decrease because of the damage to the two engines, and the airplane begins a slow descent. The rain has stopped. The copilot sees the runway ahead.
Captain: Left motor’s failed.
Copilot: There’s the runway straight ahead.
Captain: Okay. Tell ’em [Connecticut’s Bradley International Airport Tower] we’re going down. Tell ’em emergency.
Copilot: [To Approach] Tower, call for emergency equipment. We’re going down on the runway. [To captain] You want the [landing] gear back down?
Captain: Yes, throw it down!
Cockpit: [Recorded mechanical voice: “Sink rate, sink rate.”]
Captain: Oh, god.
Copilot: You’re gonna make it.
Cockpit: [Recorded mechanical voice: “Sink rate, sink rate.”]
Captain: Put ’em down. What we got?
Copilot: We’re still flying.
Captain: Okay. God…
Copilot: Keep coming.
Cockpit: [Recorded mechanical voice: “Sink rate, too low, flaps, terrain, terrain, terrain, too low…”]
Copilot: You got it, dude. You’re gonna make it.
Captain: Okay, flaps forty. All the way down.
Cockpit: [Recorded mechanical voice: “Don’t sink.”]
Captain: All the way, flaps forty.
Copilot: They’re all the way.
Captain: Okay, hold on, guy.
Cockpit: [Sound of impact, this time with the Instrument Landing System antenna sticking up near the end of the runway]
Captain: Hold it down, buddy, hold it down,
hold it down, hold it down, hold it down…
Flight 1572 slams down on the runway.
Copilot: God bless you. You made it.
END OF TAPE.
No one complains when you make heroes out of anonymous people who excel at their jobs. That’s at least an element of what Warrenton, Va., author Malcolm MacPherson does in The Black Box, a compilation of transcripts taken from the aircraft contraption that captures the dialogues of men and women who believe they are about to die.
Of course, few would shell out $15 for a book full of happy endings like that of American Airlines Flight 1572. So MacPherson has filled The Black Box with transcripts from headline-making crashes like those of the Korean Air flight shot down by Russian fighter planes in 1983 and USAir Flight 427, which suddenly plummeted from the sky only miles away from its Pittsburgh destination. Those are the sorts of outtakes that have placed a target on MacPherson.
Lynn Woodel, the sister of Michael Gambone, who perished with his wife earlier this month in the Swissair Flight 111 wreck off Nova Scotia, condemns MacPherson to a fate not unlike that of a crash casualty. “If you want to make money off of somebody’s death, well then, God help you,” she says. “You’re not only profiting off the suffering of the victims, but also the suffering of their families.” Adds Jim Hammond, whose parents died in Swissair 111, “What makes this so heart-wrenching and awful is imagining what happened in those final minutes. And to sensationalize that is incredibly insensitive. It’s exploitative, and it’s demeaning.”
Andrea Waas, whose father, a private pilot, was killed in a small-plane crash, agrees. “As a family member, I would not want my loved one’s final words published for the world to see,” says Waas, who runs Wings of Light, a nonprofit support group for survivors of aviation disasters and their families. “Unless individuals have been through it, they don’t realize how devastating the publicizing of such information can be to family members, and how it can delay the process of recovery.”
“Please, I’m not picking up my skirt and saying I’m doing this for aviation’s historical purposes,” MacPherson responds. “The best thing you can say about it is that it’s loaded up with a lot of dramatic instances. Some are heroic, and some are goofy, and some are tragic. And there’s a fascination with these things because there’s really nothing like it on Earth where you can go through a real human drama as it unfolds.”
Credit MacPherson with the ingenuity to find human drama in a place where most folks see only filing cabinets and bureaucrats: the National Transportation Safety Board’s (NTSB) archives. He first published The Black Box in 1984. The book’s second installment contains 30 new transcripts49 in alland hit bookstores five weeks ago. Morrow, the publisher, is “very pleased” with its performance at home and abroad. MacPherson expects to sell at least 60,000 copies this time around.
The first edition of The Black Box surfaced in a different media environment. “The field was very untilled,” says MacPherson. “News in 1984 was still news; it wasn’t ‘entertaino-news’ or whatever they call it today. Over the last several years the networks have taken, to a large degree, disasters as entertainment. Particularly air crashes.” Witness the Fox network’s specials featuring brutal car wrecks and other videotaped catastrophes that were once reserved for cultish peripherals like the Faces of Death video collection of people being killed on camera.
MacPherson doesn’t fit the grim stereotype of, say, the paparazzo who chose to shoot photographs of a dying Princess Diana rather than to help the victims of a horrible car accident. In fact, he once took a sudden leave of absence from his posting in Africa as a correspondent for Newsweek to investigate the murder of a friend. When he is watching the news of an airplane crash with his family, MacPherson says, he turns down the sound when the control tower’s radio transmission clips are played.
Whether or not you share MacPherson’s opinion that his work on The Black Box is within the bounds of good taste, he says he had no interest in experiencing the crashes and close calls beyond the written transcripts. “I’ve never heard a tape and I never want to, because I don’t want to hear these voices, because that to me is truly ghoulish,” he said. “I think the drama comes through very clearly on the written page. The guys who investigate this stuff say that when you hear one of these things, you never forget it.”
MacPherson says the hook is the raw, authentic drama of a cockpit emergency situation: “Smart, capable, real people in a state of total emergency trying to attack and solve a problem,” says MacPherson. “How will they react?”
This is how:
Copilot: [Look at] all the birds.
Flight Engineer: [There are a] Lotta birds out here.
At this point, the number-one and number-two engines ingested several geese, disintegrating the engines’ fan blades.
Captain: Damn, we took one.
Copilot: Go to override on the…Elmendorf Tower, Yukla Two seven heavy has an emergency. Lost, ah, number two engine. We’ve taken some birds.
The crew begins to dump fuel in preparation for an emergency landing. They had in fact lost both engines. They try to lower the plane’s nose and come back around.
Tower: Two seven heavy, roger.
Captain: Goin’ down.
Copilot: Oh my god.
Captain: Oh, shit.
Copilot: Okay, give it all you got, give it all you got. Two seven heavy, emergency…
Tower: Roll the crash [equipment], roll
Copilot: [on public-address system] Crash [landing].
Captain: We’re going in, we’re going down.
The plane crashed into woods and caught fire. All 24 on board were lost.
MacPherson became intrigued by aviation while in Africa, where he was often forced to fly in craft that were barely airworthy. “One time, some people tried to light a fire in the aislea wooden fire. They wanted to cook some food. It was unbelievable. One time, the engineer fell asleep. I went up and tapped him on the shoulder and told him to wake up,” he says.
The idea for The Black Box germinated when a British Airways pilot showed MacPherson a cockpit voice recorder (CVR) transcript to give him an idea of what a flight crew does in flight. Though the transcripts are dense with technical terms and pilot lingo (MacPherson includes a glossary in both editions), the author was “absolutely riveted by the drama of the thing and…tried to get hold of them ever after.”
After all, you don’t need a glossary to understand how dramatically screwed people are if a plane’s flight engineer declares, “This is United 232. We blew Number Two engine, and we’ve lost all hydraulics and we are only able to control level flight with the asymmetrical power settings. We have very little rudder or elevator.” In that particular flight from MacPherson’s book, the captain was able to land his plane and save 185 of the 296 people on board by steering it into only right turns, executed by modulating the speed of his two remaining engines.
The Civil Aviation Authority, the British equivalent of the Federal Aviation Administration, patently refused MacPherson access to any tapes or transcripts. When he arrived stateside, he called NTSB and asked if there was anything he could see. “They said I could come down and see them….There was this stalagmite of transcripts about 8 feet high….After a half an hour, I left with about 40 pounds of transcripts.”
The author of a handful of modestly successful novels and histories, MacPherson likes to downplay the book, despite what his editor at Morrow called “several interesting publicity hits.”
“I mean, you spend a year on a novel, and this thing takes two weeks to put together,” says MacPherson. “It’s something you might read on the toilet. Each [transcript] takes, what, five or 10 minutes to read? Give it to your uncle who’s afraid of flying for Christmas for a bad joke.”
According to Ted Lopatkiewicz, an NTSB spokesman, released transcripts are supposed to contain only information “pertinent to the accident.” The transcripts published in The Black Box largely reflect that standard. Lopatkiewicz could not explain, however, the transcript in the book that ends with one co-pilot, who managed to survive his accident with second-degree burns on 80 percent of his body, saying, “I love, you, Amy.”
Unedited versions, and the tapes themselves, are withheld from public review. It is against the law for CVR tapes to be released to anyone except courts of law or owners of the aircraft in question, and even those people have to wait until the NTSB’s investigation is completed. In 1991, the NTSB was sued by Jack McGilvra, the ex-husband of a crash victim from United Airlines Flight 565, to obtain a CVR tape. A federal court in Colorado affirmed the board’s right to withhold the tapes.
Of course, some recordings are available over the Internet, provider of all things you’re not supposed to have. But according to MacPherson, his goal when he started the project in the early 1980s was to make sure the pilots whose job it is to bring everyone safely home “were no longer faceless”not to relive the hell of an airplane crash. “I don’t need to hear that. It just doesn’t interest me. Now, the people who would say [my book is] ghoulish, I would ask them if they turn their heads to look when they see a wreck on the side of the road.” CP