Air Crash Investigation: trashy infotainment or genuine history?

Posted: June 15, 2013 in Air, Television, Transport

Infotainment is an interesting addition to the modern television vocabulary. Aside from Homer Simpson’s opinion, it generally has negative connotations, implying a dilution of fact and information in favour of visceral entertainment. Today we have whole channels devoted to this type of programming, covering many aspects of history.

Cineflix’s Mayday, better known to American and British viewers as Air Crash Investigation, is perhaps a classic example of this, one of a number of series in the sub-genre of the disaster documentary. The show, which is broadcast in its home country on Discovery Channel Canada and National Geographic in the USA and the UK, is currently approach its 10th anniversary, first being broadcast in September 2003. The 12th series of the show finished in April, with details of the 13th released earlier this year.

How does it work? Basically, over time the structure of the show has evolved, but today episodes are generally split into three distinct sections, shaped by the four 13-minute segments between advert breaks. First is the narrative of the accident itself, where actors take the place of the pilots and passengers in a representation of the accident, which is aided by a CGI recreation. The acting is occasionally unconvincing and deliberately over-the-top but usually it works very well. In the early series, these took up the bulk of the episode, but in more recent series, this often gets sacrificed in favour of the second section, which focuses on the investigation. Perhaps influenced by the success of the forensic analysis of shows like CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, both in an investigative sense and in terms of the whizz-bang graphics the show uses, more emphasis has become placed on the “journey” of accident investigators themselves, who quickly became the stars of the show. The final section is a brief conclusion, revealing the fates and emotional reactions of survivors or the relatives of victims, as well as showing how the disaster or near-disaster contributed to the advancement of aviation safety.

So what you have is a combination of formulaic structure, ropey acting, flashy computer-generated plane crashes, emotional testimony, and boffins trying to explain complex aviation science to a mass audience. And yet somehow it works – amidst all the superficial gloss and the tender subject, it’s stimulating, thought-provoking and entertaining. It’s a guilty pleasure of mine – I’ve watched 67 of the 91 episodes broadcast, of which many are available of YouTube.

It’s quite an achievement considering the numerous potential pitfalls. For a start, you have the very nature of the programme itself – 79 of the 90 episodes include accidents or incidents where someone died. The vast majority of these took place within the last 40 years (the few exceptions include the Grand Canyon mid-air collision of 1956, and the Munich crash of the plane carrying Manchester United in 1958), which means there are going to be relatives of the victims potentially watching, if not appearing on the show to provide oral testimony – this is distinctly modern history.

It would be easy to brand the focus on the emotional reactions of those involved, or the exaggerated acting representing the panic on the plane, as cynical ploys. But at the same time, consider the alternative – a show dryly focusing solely on the scientific aspect would inevitably be cold, and that could appear quite callous in the face of accidents where as many as 200-300 people were killed. As it is, you cannot get away from reducing those deaths to a number, which itself takes a lot of the sting out of it – it’s easy to forget that each victim has his/her own story, and their own relatives who will have been hurt by this. In some ways, the adding of the oral testimony is an artificial device for re-inserting that emotion back in, so that the viewer doesn’t forget that people did actually die.

In that sense, it does serve a purpose beyond trying to get people emotionally involved. And it does work – even if you’re not the sort of person to burst into sobs while watching a mother talk about the moment she found out her child had died (and these are often very difficult to watch), you still may get caught up in the tension of the narrative section, particularly if it’s a long one. A good example is the recent episode on United Airlines Flight 232, where a McDonnell Douglas DC-10 en route to Chicago suffered from a catastrophic engine failure which cut the hydraulics, leaving the pilots with no control over the aircraft. The episode follows the pilots’ attempts to land the plane at Sioux City Airport – while the inserted testimonies from the pilot, co-pilot and another pilot who was on the flight and ended up helping them out tell you that they survived, there’s still a lot of tension as you watch the recreation of the semi-successful crash-landing, which led to the deaths of 111 passengers and crew but the survival of over 180.

Similarly captivating the episode telling the story of Japan Air Lines Flight 123, where the pilots of a Boeing 747 battled against a damaged plane they could not control as they flew over Japan, before eventually running out of fortune and crashing into a mountain, killing 520 of the passengers and crew. The producers again devote a huge amount of time to the narrative of the accident itself – even though you know what will eventually happen as 1) they tell you at the beginning and 2) it’s a well-known accident as it is one of the worst in the history of aviation, one can’t help but feel the tension as you seen the pilots struggle with a plane that, unbeknownst to them, was missing half its tail and, similar to the DC-10 in United 232 a few years later, had lost hydraulics.

But the investigations themselves are also fascinating, as you follow the investigators piece together how the accident happened and why. At first glance, this seems like it could be terribly boring, but it isn’t – you can learn a surprising amount from this without initially realising.

Part of this lies in the total lack of subtlety, which in this case is a major positive. This programme is designed for a mass audience, so it needs to communicate these concepts clearly and objectively – the American crash investigators, especially the ones that pop up regularly (woo, Greg Feith), are particularly good at this. If you watch many episodes, you’ll notice the same things are explained over and over again – cockpit voice recorders and flight data recorders come up nearly every time, while other concepts such as metal fatigue, explosive decompression, stalling and the effects of icing are themes. It is also useful for explanations of air traffic control, how the weather affects planes, and even the basics of how pilots fly aircraft. It’s a show that appears clever without ever making you feel stupid.

Watch a few episodes of ACI and suddenly the next time you fly, you’ll see everything that is going on in a new light – some may suggest that a programme like this may encourage a fear of flying, but, as far as I’m concerned, it’s actually been very reassuring, because you realise how routine everything is and how the aviation industry has learned from every major incident. ACI demonstrates the scale of these disasters without ever inferring that one day you too might be killed in a plane crash – if anything, it’s the total opposite of that.

But there is another aspect to the investigations, and this is something I’ve been interested in following on from with potential research – the cultural aspect of this. One recurring theme with episodes is the interaction between crew members, and how accidents occur when this breaks down. Crew resource management training is now standard in the Western world but there are, or at least were until recently, still some cultures where the senior figure in the cockpit commands more respect – examples covered by ACI include Egypt and South Korea, while other notable examples of this include the Tenerife Runway Disaster (covered by an extended special, Crash of the Century) and the 1972 Staines Air Disaster in England, which will be covered by the first episode of Season 13.

You could do a whole study on the differences between how different cultures react to disasters just based on Air Crash Investigation. Perhaps it doesn’t realise that it’s doing this, but it does show up these variations. Perhaps there’s an element of “backward countries” being contrasted with “progressive America”, in particular where American investigators are brought in to “assist” in investigations (notionally because many of the aircraft are American), but that might just be because the USA is the king of flying, and has learned from its many disasters already (something that can be charted if you consider these disasters in chronological order) while safety standards generally just aren’t as high elsewhere. Take a look at the list of serious plane crashes over the past couple of years and there’s a stark lack of major crashes in the US, with the majority coming in Asia, South America or Africa, where aviation is growing at a rapid rate. The case of Indonesia, covered in the episodes on the 1997 SilkAir Disaster and the 2007 Adam Air Disaster, is a particularly good example of this.

So it isn’t necessarily true that Air Crash Investigation is meant to be just about aesthetic and emotional appeal. The show does indeed tap into those facets, but only to improve the show for a wider audience. The basic idea remains to inform the viewer about a particular incident or series of incidents. The reason for the flashy graphics, high emotion and lack of subtlety is because it’s aimed in a two-pronged attack – they want to try and attract the channel-hopper while keeping it interesting for those who watch loads of episode.

And I think it works. It helps that the subject matter is potentially very interesting – no two incidents are the same, and each has a story behind it. But I’m yet to find a particularly boring episode – each is crafted to create tension, drama and intrigue. It is formulaic and you can often predict what’s going to happen next, but it still keeps you watching, because each episode has a fairly linear plot and the viewer is encouraged to stick around to see where it ends up.

Here is a sample of some of my personal favourites and other well-known episodes:

Unlocking Disaster (Season 1 Episode 1)
A United Airlines Boeing 747 suffers an explosive decompression while flying over the Pacific Ocean in 1989. The plane lands safely at Honolulu but 9 passengers had been sucked out. The cause of the decompression is later determined to be the cargo door, which had opened without command mid-flight. The parents of one of the victims start their own investigation and find out that the design of the locking mechanism was flawed.

Fire on Board (Season 1 Episode 3)
A Swissair McDonnell Douglas MD-11 heading across the Atlantic Ocean to Geneva in 1998 radios air traffic control to ask for an emergency landing due to smoke in the cockpit. This smoke was from a fire that grew rapidly. 16 minutes after the crew first detected smoke, the plane disappeared from radar. A few minutes later, it crashed into the sea, killing all 229 people on-board. It is discovered that the fire was caused by an electrical arc of unknown origin – it is speculated that this could have been caused by problems with the in-flight entertainment. The fire eventually led to a loss of control of the aircraft, causing the crash.

Blow Out (Season 2 Episode 1)
In 1990, a British Airways commuter plane suddenly loses its windscreen mid-flight, sucking the pilot out of the front, though others in the cockpit are able to hold on to him. The co-pilot flies to the nearest airport, where amazingly it is discovered that the pilot is still alive. The loss of the windscreen had been caused by incorrect bolts fitted during maintenance.

Kid in the Cockpit (Season 3 Episode 7)
The one that everyone talks about – in 1994, an Aeroflot pilot flying a brand new Airbus A310 to Hong Kong invites his children into the cockpit and then, for a brief moment, an opportunity to take to the controls. However, the pilot’s son accidentally disengages the autopilot, and the pilot doesn’t realise this. The plane eventually smashes into a mountain, killing all 75 people on board.

Death and Denial (Season 3 Episode 8)
In one of the most controversial air disasters of all time, an EgyptAir Boeing 767 en route from New York to Cairo in 1999 plunges into the Atlantic Ocean, resulting in the deaths of all 217 people on board. The American investigation bureau, the NTSB, is called into investigate and discovers evidence that suggest that the relief co-pilot, who was in control of the plane at the time, may have deliberately crashed the plane. The Egyptian government rejects this notion and launches its own investigation, saying the crash was caused by a control column failure.

Crash of the Century (2 hour long special – notionally Season 3 Episode 14)
On 27th March 1977, all passenger jets bound for Gran Canaria are temporarily diverted to Tenerife’s Los Rodeos Airport due to a bombing, including two Boeing 747s, one for Pan Am and another for KLM. When Gran Canaria Airport was reopened, the two 747s headed to the runway – due to their position in the crowded airport, both had to taxi down the runway before taking off in the opposite direction, the KLM 747 leading the Pan Am 747. But as they do this, the airport becomes swamped by thick fog, leaving air traffic control without sight of the planes taking off. The pilot of the KLM 747, one of the airline’s top pilots, either mishears the controller or intentionally decides to take off without permission (this episode suggests the latter), while the Pan Am 747 is still taxing down the runway in front of it amidst the fog. The two planes collide, killing everyone on the KLM plane and all bar 61 people on the Pan Am plane – in all 583 people perish in what is still the world’s worst air disaster. The episode itself particularly focuses on the tension-building lead-up to the disaster.

Final Approach (Season 4 Episode 4)
In August 1997, a Korean Air Boeing 747 crashes into a hill while approaching Guam Airport in thick fog, killing 228 of the 254 people on-board. The airport’s glideslope signal, which helps the pilots approach the runway at the right trajectory, was out of service, and the pilot descended prematurely when attempting to land. It is also revealed that the pilot was suffering from fatigue, and the crew had not been trained in crew resource management, both of which contributed to the errors made.

Hidden Danger (Season 4 Episode 5)
In March 1991, a United Airlines Boeing 737 mysteriously plunges out of the sky into the ground at high speed. The NTSB are unable to find a cause of the crash. An identical crash occurs 3 years later with a USAir 737, and still investigators cannot find a cause. Eventually, when an Eastwind 737 narrowly avoids a similar fate, the NTSB uncovers a hidden flaw in the rudder, which caused it to jam in a particular direction (known as “hardover”) if frozen by ice, which itself leaves no trace when on the ground due to it melting.

Vertigo (Season 4 Episode 7)
A Flash Airlines Boeing 737 spirals into the Red Sea shortly after a takeoff at night from Sharm-el-Sheikh in January 2004, killing all 148 people on the plane. With the wreckage at the bottom of the sea, investigators are left with very little evidence. Even when the recorders are recovered, they provide little clue. The investigators narrow it down to a number of theories. It is suggested that the most likely is that the vastly experienced pilot suffered from spatial disorientation or vertigo due to not being able to see the horizon or the sea. But the pilot, a war hero in Egypt, is defended by the Egyptian government, who, as in the case of EgyptAir 990, claim it was caused by an unspecified mechanical fault.

Ghost Plane (Season 4 Episode 8)
The pilots of a Helios Airways Boeing 737 hear alarms shortly after takeoff from Larnaca Airport in Cyprus in 2005, but are unable to solve the problem. Contact is soon lost with the crew. Fighter jets are scrambled to follow the plane, which is still running on autopilot. They see little sign of life, except one person in the cockpit. Soon after the plane descends and crashes into a hill near Grammatiko in Greece. 121 people are killed. Investigators discover a pressurisation switch had been changed during maintenance, and the pilots had forgotten to change it back, leaving the plane to depressurise. The pilots soon slumped into unconsciousness as a result of hypoxia, along with the passengers once their oxygen masks had run out. The sole figure awake when the fighter jets arrived was a cabin crew member, who had found a way of staying conscious and was trying to save the plane, but he couldn’t prevent the plane running out of fuel and crashing.

Invisible Killer (Season 5 Episode 3)
In 1985, a Delta Air Lines Lockheed TriStar drops out of the sky on approach to Dallas-Fort Worth Airport, hits a fuel tank and explodes, killing 137 people. The investigation focuses on the stormy weather, and eventually it is determined that the plane was hit by a phenomena known as a microburst, which caused massive wind shear from several directions over a period of a minute. The pilots recognised this but were unable to control the plane. Since the accident wind shear detection systems have been fitted to all commercial airliners and weather radars at airports have also been improved.

Fanning the Flames (Season 5 Episode 4)
In November 1987, a South African Airways Boeing 747 Combi carrying 159 people and freight from Taipei to Johannesburg catches fire over the Indian Ocean, eventually plunging into it. Much of the episode focuses on the efforts to rescue the FDR and CVR from the wreckage, which had sunk to the bottom of the ocean. But even when recovered, the recorders give no clues about the cause of the fire, and it remains unsolved, although a conspiracy theory suggests it might have been started by weapons being smuggled into the country by the government to get around an embargo.

Southern Storm (Season 5 Episode 6)
In 1977, Southern Airways DC-9 is flown into a thunderstorm, and both engines are damaged to the point of failure by hail. The pilots try to land the plane on a public road, which ends with a collision with a petrol station and the deaths of 72 people, though 22 people on the plane survive. The pilots are blamed for flying into the storm, but it also results in improvements being made to on-board radar systems to give pilots more information about the weather they are flying into.

Air India: Explosive Evidence (Season 5 Episode 7)
In 1985, an Air India Boeing 747 disappears off the coast of Ireland. It is found spread over a wide area of the Atlantic Ocean, with all 329 people on-board killed. The episode focuses on the investigation into the cause of the disaster, which is determined to be a bomb, and attempts to find out how it got on the plane, how it caused such a disaster, and who was responsible for the bomb. Though the individuals are never found, it is concluded that a Sikh separatist terrorist group was behind the attack.

Lockerbie Disaster (Season 7 Episode 2)
The 1988 bombing of a Pan Am Boeing 747 is well-known to us all, but this episode goes in detail in the investigation of both the cause of what was initially a sudden and mysterious disaster, and then into the criminal investigation to try and find out who committed the bombing. It provides a good case to suggest that Abdelbaset al-Megrahi was the perpetrator, rebuffing the conspiracy theories.

Panic on the Runway (Season 9 Episode 1)
In August 1985, a British Airtours Boeing 737 suffers a catastrophic engine failure when taking off at Manchester Airport. The plane catches fire and 55 people are killed. The episode provides interesting insights into the investigation of the cause of the engine failure, why the rest of the plane was set ablaze, and why it has led to large improvements to the layout of aircraft to allow more people to escape planes in similar circumstances.

Cracks in the System (Season 9 Episode 8)
In December 2005, an ageing sea plane plummets into the sea in view of one of Miami’s most popular beaches, killing 20 people. The plane belonged to Chalk’s Ocean Airways, the world’s oldest airline, who provided flights between Miami and the Caribbean islands. It is eventually uncovered that the plane’s wing fell off due to metal fatigue not picked up as a result of poor maintenance. The airline soon goes out of business.

Dead Tired (Season 10 Episode 4)
In February 2009, a Colgan Air Bombardier Dash-8 on a regional flight plunges from the sky into a residential area in Buffalo, New York, killing 50 people. The cockpit voice recordings reveal the pilots suddenly lost control of the plane for seemingly no reason. It is eventually worked out that ice had accumulated on the wings of the aircraft, which had gone unnoticed by an over-worked and fatigued pilot and co-pilot, so that when the flaps were engaged for landing, the aerodynamic properties of the plane had changed to the point of becoming impossible to control.

Munich Air Disaster (Season 11 Episode 5)
The plane carrying the Manchester United squad crashes during an attempted takeoff from a snowy Munich Airport in February 1958, with 23 of the people on board perished. The episode focuses on the initial investigation, and the 10-year battle by the pilot to clear his name after he was incorrectly blamed for failing to de-ice the wings – the actual cause was slush on the runway slowing the plane down.

I’m The Problem (Season 11 Episode 10)
Gunshots are heard on a Pacific Southwest commuter jet in 1987. Shortly after, it plunges from the sky at the speed of sound, killing 43 people. Once the cockpit voice recordings prove that someone had entered the cockpit and murdered the pilots, before pointing the plane into a dive, the investigation shifts into trying to find out who the perpetrator is. It is eventually revealed that it is a disgruntled former employee, who was able to avoid security checks due to his identification, and is then believed to have shot his former boss before taking over the plane to kill everyone else on board.

All images used in the spirit of fair use

  1. Rich Williams says:

    Great analysis. Think Blow Out has to be my favourite, just for the way you assume the pilot has died – and then he’s suddenly being interviewed. Pilot Betrayed is also brilliant. Heroic landing and love the pilot’s typically Scandinavian modest dignity. Can’t forget the Hudson miracle, either.

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