…will soon be available as an eBook (and followed by Vols 3 and 4).
The Air Disaster series were the seminal works on air crash investigation written by the brilliant Macarthur Job, a world-renowned authority on the subject (and himself a pilot, and still going strong into his 90s in his native Australia).
Volume 1 looked at the very early days of mass passenger transport – slow, lumbering, piston-engined machines often converted from World War 2 bombers, and patchily reliable; Volume 2, the early years of jet travel, will be following very soon.
The original paperbacks dealt mainly with the technical aspects of the crashes; we have been working to add in some of the background material about the people on the flights in question, and then republishing them as eBooks for Kindle, iTunes and Kobo.
There is something surprisingly moving (given no personal connection) about reading old passenger manifests, news reports and obituaries – stories of people who boarded aeroplanes to take them on family holidays or business trips, and never reached their destinations… all that potential snuffed out, those lives unlived, the friends and relatives left behind.
In some cases, the information available is tantalisingly scant.
For instance, in 1972 a British European Airways Trident, Flight BE 548 to Brussels, crashed on Staines shortly after take-off from Heathrow. Everyone aboard was killed, though fortunately – because of the odd way in which the aircraft came down (almost vertically in a flat stall into open ground) and because there was no fire – no-one on the ground was hurt.
Most were business travellers – 12 were senior Irish businessmen, on their way to Brussels on a fact-finding mission ahead of Ireland’s accession to the EEC the following year; Lieutenant-Commander Hugh Sampson and Commander Alan Alabaster, both of the Royal Navy, and Major Albert Harrison, of the Royal Corps of Signals, were presumably on NATO affairs – but at least two family groups were aboard.
Mrs Suzanne Hansen was a 35-year-old housewife from Seattle in Washington, and she was travelling with her four children – Christen, 14, Gretchen, 12, Heidi, 9, and Peter, 7. All were killed. Why they were on the aircraft, we’ve not been able to ascertain. Perhaps Mr Hansen – Gary – worked in Brussels?
Last week we were looking at the 1974 loss of PanAm flight 806, from Auckland in New Zealand to Los Angeles, via Pago Pago in American Samoa and Honolulu, Hawaii.
There were 91 passengers, six cabin crew and four on the flight deck aboard the Boeing 707 as it approached Pago Pago. It was almost midnight, the aircraft was flying into a thunderstorm with vicious wind shear, and a mile or so before the runway there was only inky black jungle below them. These factors, and errors by the flight crew, led the to jet flying into the densely-forested hillside before the airport.
No-one knew that they were crashing until they crashed, and it actually wasn’t the worst impact, either; the plane effectively landed on the treetops and stayed largely intact, and only minor injuries were caused. However, within seconds the 707 was engulfed in flames. Most people either panicked or were trapped in the aircraft by people who panicked.
The stories of those who died are unbearably poignant.
For instance, Norman and Virginia Orton, both 41, were flying back to the United States with their three daughters – Glenna, 19, Susan, 15, and Jennifer, seven. The family – originally from Baytown, Texas – had spent the previous four years living in Adelaide, South Australia, where Mr Orton had been working as an electronics engineer with East Systems. Now they were at the start of a seven-week vacation, and looking forward particularly to some time in Hawaii, before he started a new job back in the USA.
The strange (but useful) findagrave website shows that this small, tragic family is buried together at Baytown Memorial Cemetery. Someone has uploaded photographs of two of the daughters, Glenna and Jennifer.
Only four people survived Flight 806; they did so thanks to a fortunate combination of being able to keep a clear head and being seated near the emergency exits.
Former US Olympic diving coach Dick Smith had been to New Zealand to do some coaching ahead of the forthcoming Commonwealth Games; he and young Auckland solicitor Roger Cann both suffered only slight injuries.
Mr Cann’s then wife Heather, a 21-year-old ballet teacher, suffered serious burns but lived; Charles Culberson, a 30-year-old Oregon State University oceanographer who had just completed a month-long oceanographic expedition starting off Samoa, was terribly burned and had to have his hands rebuilt by plastic surgeons.
Mr Smith said
I said to myself, “I’m getting out of this place. I unbuckled and stood up to survey the situation for just half a second. I knew I wasn’t going to panic like the rest of them. That wouldn’t solve anything. On my right was an emergency door. I shoved it open and a wall of flame hit me smack in the face. I shut the door real quick and told myself, “That’s one way out, but not the right way out.” I moved to the aisle, and they were just like a bunch of horses stampeding to the front. My first thought was I might want to follow them, but a blast of smoke hit me in the face and I decided to look for another way out.
I went a step, possibly more than a step. Then heavy smoke or heavy flames hit me directly in the face with such a force that I don’t know whether I automatically dropped down to my knees, or whether I was knocked down to my knees. I’ve been in a position where I’ve been in chlorine gas a couple of times, and this was as terrific as chlorine gas. It was a real big black smoke of toxic gas – smoke like molasses. When those flames hit me, well, I could have quit like a lot of other people right then, because it was one of the most tremendous feelings I’ve ever had in my life – just being grabbed like that. I had a great fear right then, and I said to myself, “No, Smith, not you, not this way!”
Because of his time as a diving coach, he had spent many years swimming, which gave him a crucial advantage over many of his fellow passengers.
I can hold my breath for four minutes. When I dropped down to my knees, I did not even try to breathe. I pivoted around and went back on the left side of the aircraft for two rows and forced the emergency exit open. I jumped out on the wing and lit out on all fours. I felt that no one could live up there any longer than they could hold their breath.
Roger Cann said he and his wife made their escape with ‘one gulp of air’ and that there were only five seconds between the aircraft coming to a halt and their jumping from an emergency exit two rows in front of them.
Outside, the Canns and Dick Smith stood in the rain, waiting for other passengers to follow them from the burning aircraft.
Roger Cann said later
I thought, “Well, what are they doing?” There’s got to be some. They couldn’t have died in that one. They’ve got to be somewhere. They can’t all be dead.”