by Anthony Strain
The story of civil aviation is told in sequences of numbers — flights, models of aircraft, hydraulic fluid designations. Famous accidents become known by their flight numbers — Eastern 401, Air India 182, Wayfarer 515. Like the full names of serial killers or executed persons, this is the official mnemonic way to record this data. Categories of planes are distinguishable by number(s): the Airbus A-320, the Boeing 747–300, now the Boeing 747–8. If you wanted to superstitiously/erroneously avoid planes with recent crash records, you would already know what the Boeing 737–200’s been up to this century — more like down to. Because the elevators and ailerons of a modern aircraft are too heavy to operate on pulleys, every plane is injected with hydraulic fluid. Introduced in 2010, the hydraulic fluid endorsed and used by Airbus and Boeing is Skydrol PE-5; it features the longest fluid life of any commercially available fluid. We fly on fluid.
A staple of pop culture and the subconscious equally, the nightmare of the plane crash didn’t really go away once we woke up to the reality of air safety. If not perfectible, the form has at least been retired from any speculative realm that might imply we still don’t know what we’re doing. Planes don’t crash as often as they used to, and the adage of a commute by car being more dangerous than a cross-country flight remains obnoxiously true. 2012 was deemed the safest flying year on record, with 475 fatalities. Only one of those accidents was in the United States — a FedEx-operated Cessna, with one fatality.
Contrast that with the full year of 2005, in which there were 1,103 deaths, a figure which was down in turn from 1,593 in 1995. Contrast those with the apocalyptic year of 1985, during which 2,629 lives were lost worldwide in some of the industry’s most devastating accidents, and you can now get on a plane in your most comfortable tracksuit and pretty much know you won’t get any blood on it. Alow and aloft, commercial aircraft now operate with the surety and smoothness of clocks unbroken; they are seldom wrong even once a day.
If you were to workshop a feared and fictive plane crash, it would look a lot like that year’s crash of Japan Air 123. Still the deadliest single-aircraft accident in history, it was a rare mix of mechanical error, overcrowding, and hypoxia. By the mid-eighties air travel had become so indispensable to Japanese life that Japan Air was using 747s for the slightest of island hops, which is like getting your Rolls-Royce out for a trip to the corner store. Four minutes after takeoff from Tokyo on August 12 1985, Flight 123’s tail blew off. Complete hydraulic failure and scary pitching-and-rolling ensued.
On the cockpit voice recorder transcripts, the pilots showed symptoms of oxygen deprivation. But they kept the plane flying for 32 minutes before it hit Mount Osutaka. Four passengers of the 524 people aboard survived; the numbers of dead were further skewed by the remoteness of the region and a lot of jurisdictional bickering by the Japanese bureaucracy. Families of the victims, unable to properly visit the site, toured it by helicopter like unstoic heads of state.
Flight 123 is representative of plane-crash mythology because of that half-hour ordeal during which the passengers surrendered any illusions, as the plane headed off-course, away from Osaka. A crashing plane is often just a burning building in the sky. Many aboard Flight 123 wrote notes to their loved ones which resulted in a found mosaic of self-exorcism. Was there a moment, on this plane or another, when the shared charge of death impending became euphoric? Only the survivors know and that’s redacted, sensibly, from most accounts. Even admitting to thinking about it feels a bit like rattling a beggar’s cup amongst a bunch of bones. Morbid or mendacious, my obsession with air accidents is all about the following item, which may or may not be fresh off the intellectual black market: At least in a plane crash, you don’t have to die alone.
In 2001, there was an outbreak of plane crashes. The commandeered 9/11 flights were acts of engineered monstrosity; the perpetrators essentially took courses in how to crash a plane. The air-fatality numbers for that year look impossibly juked; 3,256, including lives lost on the ground, in the towers and inside the Pentagon. The data includes the 227 aboard American Flight 587, which went down over Rockaway, Queens on November 12. Flying into wake turbulence immediately upon takeoff, the first officer followed his training and worked the rudder pedals, which promptly broke the aircraft. The composite materials that make up the body of an Airbus A300–600 cannot sustain the kind of undue stress to the vertical stabilizer that was induced by the first officer’s tactic. American Airlines changed its training program accordingly and in 2009 retired the A300–600 from its fleet entirely. That day everyone still thought it was a terrorist attack.
Similar to a Dickian precog dreaming exclusively of murder, one of the few recurring dreams I have that’s fit to print is of a jet falling to earth right in front of me. Sometimes I’m driving and the plane falls into windshield-frame from right to left; sometimes I step outside where I live and the plane flips gymnastically into view with the sky as balance beam. People die in them all the time — the planes and the dreams. I feel a migratory pull toward the scene that isn’t altruistic. It’s voyeuristic, maybe even heuristic. I’m not much of a joiner but I want to run screaming into the damage.
An accident similar to Flight 587 in that it involved casualties external to the flight and a neighborhood being lacerated is the Cerritos mid-air collision of August 31, 1986. An Aeroméxico DC-9 struck a Piper Archer, killing everyone aboard both planes and 15 on the ground. The carnage at the scene was so gruesome, a first-responder recalled in the accident’s episode of “Air Crash Investigations,” that he went into a kind of color-shock and saw things only in a graduated form of sepia. Sometimes the brain is only okay with seeing certain traumas when it has filter approval, and maybe that’s why we have plane-crash dreams.
On dream message boards, before misspelled hilarity breaks out, there is general agreement that dreaming of plane crashes means you have either a) set personal goals that are unrealistic or b) are losing control of your private and/or professional life.
The numbers of doomed flights, like the addresses of notorious murder houses, are customarily changed. Asiana 214, last summer’s flight from Incheon, South Korea to San Francisco that ended up downed and then cursed by Orientalist memes, is now somewhat bizarrely known as OZ212. American 587 is now American 1749. Air France 445, between Rio and Paris, was Air France 447 before it flew into an intertropical convergence zone over the Atlantic on June 1, 2009 and didn’t fly out. Air France 445 may be viewed as the first postmodern plane crash. It took two years, endless premature narrative journalism accounts, and millions of allocated Euros to fully address a ludicrous question: what brings one of the most cutting-edge aircraft in the world, the Airbus A-330, straight down from 35,000 feet as if pulled by a giant hook? Besides obvious answers like ‘a bomb’ or the even more smug ‘nothing,’ the answer was found to be: man himself! You can make an airplane failsafe and utterly able to fly itself, but you can never remove the human factor. Not really, and not entirely.
Flight 447’s computers recorded a number of in-flight errata after the plane’s airspeed, calculated by little outboard things called pitot tubes, failed to register. Ice crystals had incapacitated the pitot tubes, a contingency on which both Airbus and Air France were not uneducated. In its trenchant 2010 look at the accident, Der Spiegel reported nine similar occurrences on Airbuses between May and October of 2008 alone; moreover, Air France had issued a memo to all its pilots concerning pitot-tube failure. Like most memos, it looks really helpful in hindsight. Once the A-330’s airspeed-indicator kicked out, the autopilot switched itself off and one of the three living, breathing pilots corrected the pitch of the plane. The jet’s speed dropped 90 knots in less than a minute, inducing a stall; the plane began to fall at a rate of 12,000 feet per minute. Your aircraft cannot break a stall when you destroy lift by reducing airflow across the wings; pitching the plane’s nose up does that. Flight 447 hit the Atlantic at 65 times the force of gravity.
Forensics and less intricate science — such as that all the lifejackets were still in their protective packaging and the oxygen masks were never deployed — found that Flight 447 was the inverse of Flight 123: most of the passengers didn’t know they were about to die. The A-330 literally fell out of the sky and landed, for lack of a better word, intact and belly-first. During the four minutes that took, everyone was strapped into their seats but presumably not braced for impact. In the middle of the night, assume a high percentage were asleep. On board was the wife of the pilot, Pierre-Cédric Bonin, who was at the controls when the autopilot disengaged; assume she had no idea her husband was about to end her life.
This accident is not significant because of what it says about technology and mortal mistakes. It’s significant because it feels like the last of an era. There will be other plane crashes. But in its awful pathology, catastrophic mood and oneiric outtakes, Flight 447 was certainly the end of something — a century of hubris maybe, the wildest kinds of if-man-were-meant-to-fly trollery finally sustained. Flight 447 was the last air accident to surprise anyone, despite its initial engaging mystery. It’s a perfect coincidence that investigators, while hunting for the black boxes, used the same autonomous underwater vehicles that were used to find the Titanic.
Rueing the sanitation of air travel and the removal of all reasonable doubt can sound glib. The fetishization of accidents is a pretty natural outgrowth of that lament. I don’t wish crashes on planes. I am theoretically open to the possibility of a crash being the danger, however small, that makes flying fun. If you fly nervously but find statistics to be comforting in times of stress, deciding actuarially that you’re probably not going to die in a plane crash and flying anyway is no less morbid than perusing plane-crash data at Stalinian remove. Statistics are still what happens to other people.