‘Fucking shit! It’s fictitious. Everything is fictitious!’ So said the pilot in charge of AeroPeru Flight 603 from Lima to Santiago. The date was 2 October 1996 and within a few moments Flight 603 would crash into the sea. When he spoke the pilot had just realised that he might shortly die. It had suddenly become clear to him that none of his cockpit instruments was working properly. The ‘air data’ he was getting from his dashboard panel were inaccurate, all wrong – ‘fictitious’. When he tried to slow down, his speedometer said that he was accelerating. When he tried to lose height, his altimeter insisted he was soaring. ‘Everything has gone!’ he yelled to the control tower at Lima airport. But the control tower could not help. The plane was ‘flying blind’. It didn’t know where it was or what it should be doing. The flight’s final seconds were recorded thus:
CO-PILOT TO AIR TRAFFIC CONTROL: Can you tell me the altitude please, because we have the climb that doesn’t ...
COCKPIT (Alarm warning of too low terrain)
ATC: Yes, you keep nine seven hundred according to presentation, sir.
CO-PILOT TO ATC: Nine seven hundred?
ATC: Yes, correct. What is the indicated altitude on board? Have you any visual reference?
CO-PILOT TO ATC: Nine seven hundred, but it indicates too low terrain ... Are you sure that you have us on the radar at 50 miles?
PILOT: Hey, look ... With three seven zero we have ...
CO-PILOT: Have what? Three seven zero of what? Do we lower the gear?
PILOT: But what do we do with the gear? Don’t know ... that.
COCKPIT (Sound of initial impact with the water)
CO-PILOT TO ATC: We are impacting water! Pull it up!!
ATC: Go up, go up if it indicates pull up.
PILOT: I have it, I have it!
COCKPIT (Warning sound for too low terrain)
PILOT: We are going to invert!
COCKPIT: (Sound of alarms) Whoop ... Whoop ... Pull
COCKPIT (Sound of impact)
END OF TAPE
Flight 603 hit the Pacific at 300 m.p.h. In the official lingo, all 70 ‘souls’ on board were ‘lost’. And of these 70, only two – the pilot and co-pilot – had been aware that the aircraft might be heading for a crash. Why was it heading for a crash, though? What was it with those instruments? Accident investigators later discovered that the plane’s fate had been determined on the ground, pre-take-off. The ground crew at Lima had, it transpired, washed the plane in preparation for its trip to Santiago and in the process they had ‘taped over the aircraft’s left-side static ports with masking tape’. These ports, the investigators explained, are like antennae: they pick up what the pilot cannot see. Covered over, they are useless – worse than useless. The Lima ground crew, having completed their washing, simply forgot to remove the masking tape. And the pilots, in their routine inspection before take-off, failed to notice that the tape was still in place. And that was that.
This horror story is one of 28 such tales assembled by Malcolm MacPherson in The Black Box: Cockpit Voice Recorder Accounts of In-Flight Accidents and it is no more or less harrowing than most of the others.[*] The masking-tape oversight was freakish, to be sure, but in this book the freakish comes to seem commonplace: spontaneous fires in the cargo hold, unanticipated icings-up of wings, bits of fatigued metal which nobody had thought to check, a flock of geese sucked into one of the jet engines, and so on. Pilot error is pretty freakish, too, but it does happen. In one of the accidents recorded in this book, a doomed aircrew is mildly criticised for having been a little too ‘relaxed’: ‘the crew had spent the morning and early part of the afternoon together poolside at the motel where they were staying in Little Rock.’ On another flight that didn’t make it, the pilot is described as ‘hard of hearing’ and in yet another we read this chilling exchange between the pilots and their ground control in Hawaii:
CO-PILOT: Two forty-three Aloha – forty-three.
TOWER: Two forty-two, the equipment is on the roll. Plan straight in Runway Two, and I’ll keep you advised on any wind change.
CO-PILOT: Aloha two forty-three ...
TOWER: Is that Aloha two forty-four on the emergency?
CO-PILOT: Aloha two forty-three ...
TOWER: Ah, two forty-six.
CO-PILOT: Aloha two forty-three.
In this case, getting the numbers wrong didn’t matter much. Ground Control would soon enough find out which flight had crashed. On the other hand, if they can’t get the flight number right, what else are they likely to get wrong? And maybe this accounts for the book’s merciless allure: our fear that it could well be our turn next. But there is more to this suspense assault than mere self-interest. Each snippet of cockpit dialogue is saturated in dramatic irony: we know what the speakers do not know, at least not yet. At the same time, this stuff is all for real: real life, real death. Our superior knowledge has no value – not even the pretend-value that it has when we are watching plays. The unknowing speakers on whom we are eavesdropping cannot assign us any worthwhile function. We have a choice: we either look, as in spectate, or look away.
Of course, we end up doing both, sort of. We want to yell: please, get those numbers right! But we stay mute, transfixed, waiting for what we know will be what-happens next. It’s not at all like in a story or a panto, where we can shout ‘look out!’ to Prince Charming when the villain creeps up behind his back. With P.C., there is always a chance that he might hear us, and turn round. With these unknowing pilots and co-pilots, we know that there is no chance – they never stood a chance.
So what is being asked of us, as readers, here? I wish I knew. I wish also that I could get some of these last words out of my head. We idly call books ‘haunting’ but this one really does refuse to set the reader free:
COCKPIT (Sound of three thumps followed by rattling; sound of chirps consistent with the autopilot disconnecting; sound of altitude alert signal)
CREW: Okay. (Intermittent heavy irregular breathing starts and continues to end of recording)
CREW: Oh shit.
COCKPIT (Sound of altitude-alert horn)
CREW (Sound of a growl continues for next 12 to 13 seconds, until impact)
CAPTAIN: All right, man. Okay, mellow it out.
CAPTAIN: Mellow it out.
CAPTAIN: Nice and easy.
COCKPIT (Terrain warning: Whoop, whoop, terrain)
CO-PILOT: Aw, shit.
COCKPIT (Sound of loud crunching)
END OF TAPE
Seconds later, Flight 4184 from Indianapolis to Chicago nose-dived into a field 60 miles from its destination. All 68 souls on board were lost. The probable cause of the accident: ‘Loss of control, attributed to a sudden and unexpected aileron hinge moment reversal that occurred after a ridge of ice accreted beyond the de-ice boots.’
In this raw slice of cockpit hell, as in all the others (bar one, in which the pilot managed to survive), the pilots and co-pilots have no names. We know nothing of their off-duty lives; we don’t even know their nationalities (nor, come to think of it, the languages in which they uttered their last cries). Now and again there is a tiny, desolating spark of individuation: ‘I love you, Amy,’ one of them calls out a split second before End of Tape. Mostly, however, it is the pilots’ very anonymity that cuts into us: their habit, however tense things get, of sticking to correct airline procedure and to approved aircraft-manual diction. Failed engines are always ‘inoperative’; the ground these airmen are about to hit is always ‘the terrain’.
There is plenty of ‘Holy shit!’ and ‘Oh, my God!’ There is even a ‘What the —’ and an ‘Aaargh!’, as in the comics. But nearly all the language is resolutely technical. We don’t understand most of it (indeed, the book carries a glossary of terms) and at the same time we admire these men for refusing to let go of what they know, of what they normally believe in. Lose faith in the manual and all hope is lost: something of this sort does seem to be the pilot’s guiding motto. And we can easily see why: in this context, techno-speak can seem immensely reassuring. These machines, it appears to say, were made and named by those who knew for certain that machines can be controlled, that men can fly. More often than not, most pilots would attest, the manual knows what’s going on. And yet, punctuating the accents of determined mastery, there are strange thuds to be heard, or sudden warning bells, or even the odd scream from one of the passengers ‘back there’ – i.e. in the main body of the plane, where you and I sit.
The passengers are normally not heard at all. They never get to know what’s going on – although, in one or two of the transcripts, we do hear the pilots telling them to brace themselves for something rather bumpy. What must it be like for relatives and friends of these dead passengers to read this cockpit dialogue, knowing as they do that ‘back there’ one of their loved ones was strapped into his/her seat, head down, eyes closed?
Presumably, the relatives of crash victims had access to the black-box transcripts when they were first made and already know what can be known about the aircraft’s final seconds. Maybe, years later, they don’t mind us knowing, too. But as to the transcripts themselves, we have to ask: who holds the copyright? And this in turn leads to the question that crops up on almost every page of this strange book: why publish this material at all? Who is it for? What is it for? Why put us to this test? Why make us ask ourselves: why are we reading this? Why can’t we stop?
The book’s editor tries to persuade us that, after reading The Black Box, we will all feel much better about travelling by air. We will note, so he avers, that aircraft accidents are astonishingly rare, and we will so admire the professionalism and heroism of the cockpit crews recorded here that we will be happy from now on to place our lives in such good hands. We get several pages in this vein, though MacPherson clearly knows that such arguments are nonsense, glib and smug. After all, he is not publishing the cockpit transcripts of aircraft which did not crash, is he?
Towards the end of his introduction, he suddenly comes clean. He took to studying black-box transcripts, he confesses, because he was afraid of flying. A Newsweek journalist based in Nairobi, he was forever getting into scary in-flight scrapes: ‘In those days I was taking off and landing in places and on airplanes that would naturally raise the fears in any sane person ... In those days I believed that the more I learned about the behaviour of crews in accident environments, the less I would fear flying.’ As it has turned out, the transcripts have not ‘allayed’ MacPherson’s fears – nor, as he finally concedes, are they likely to allay ours. No, what he really wants to share with us is his excitement: ‘I hope you will agree with my long-standing conviction that these transcripts are as dramatic reading as you are likely to find.’ Dramatic – and yet unlike anything he has ‘ever read, seen on the screen, or watched in a theatre. They were real, relived on the printed page.’
‘Relived’, MacPherson says. These people’s deaths, relived by us, for our dramatic pleasure. MacPherson at one point says that he is not a ghoul, and no doubt most of us would say the same about ourselves. But what is it that ghouls get up to that we don’t? Or is it just that ghouls enjoy what they do? If so, then better a ghoul, maybe, than the likes of us – the likes of me – who look and look and then complain of feeling sullied and ashamed, and thrilled to bits.
[*] HarperCollins, 184 pp., £8.99, 6 July 1998, 0 00 653045 1.