They're Falling Out Of The Sky

J.G. Ballard marvels at the courage displayed by the professionals as catastrophe quietly approaches.

The Black Box: Cockpit Voice Recorder Accounts of In-Flight Accidents ed. by Malcolm MacPherson. HarperCollins, £8-99 (pbk) August, 1998.

Without any doubt this is the last book to take with you on holiday, especially if you are flying. I made the mistake of reading my copy on a trip to the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, a titanium-clad spaceship that seems to have crash-landed out of the sun, and on the return flight suddenly heard myself asking the stewardess where the escape chutes were stored. Until we touched down I could hear every rivet straining to keep us aloft.

The fear of a fatal air crash is still one of the deepest anxieties of our age. As Malcolm MacPherson points out in this gripping collection of cockpit recordings, air travel is the safest form of transportation, statistically safer than eating. Though what about the dangers of eating and flying simultaneously, I wondered as I tucked into my lunch tray. The combination of an altitude of 35,000 feet and a portion of plastic-wrapped veal must reduce the odds to a dead certainty.

Whatever the statistics, they clearly mean nothing to air-travellers, and completely fail to calm those primitive layers of the nervous system concerned with fear and flight. The Black Box, a sequel to the edition first published in 1984, is a bracing journey down all the brain's descending escalators. Aviation casualties may be rare compared with the carnage inflicted by the motor car or in shipping accidents -– third-world ferries are floating mortuaries-in-waiting -- but the destruction wrought by air crashes is usually devastating and final. Passengers, miraculously, do scramble free from burning wreckage, but too often nothing remains except the deep grooves left by the undercarriage stumps and a crater speckled with partly vaporised aluminum.

So what goes wrong, and why? Without the black box carried in the aircraft's tail, which records both the instrument settings and the cockpit dialogue between captain and crew, we would have little idea. The transcripts may make sombre reading, but they do provide invaluable insight into how disaster can strike this most tightly regulated form of transport. However ghoulish they seem, these recordings of the last, desperate minutes are a tribute to the courage of professional flight crews.

What stands out from the transcripts is how quietly catastrophe creeps up on its victims. A gradual fall in hydraulic pressure, an unexplained loss of fuel, a hint of smoke in a lavatory, are noted half an hour before the looming crisis. In one tragic case, where highly flammable chemicals ignited in the cargo hold and raised the temperature to 3000F, an off-duty pilot travelling as a passenger reported that the cabin floor was beginning to melt, information that the captain and co-pilot calmly noted while they concentrated on more pressing problems.

As MacPherson points out, the transcripts convey only the sketchiest impression of the atmosphere in a stricken aircraft as the captain and crew wrestle with their controls. While one crippled system collapses on another, horns blare, lights flash and recorded voices shout: "Pull up! Pull up!"

Yet no one panics. Even in the final moments, as the doomed aircraft heads towards the ground at 400 miles per hour, only a stoical regret is sounded, like the simple comment, "We're dead", made by the co-pilot of a Lockheed cargo plane in the seconds before the end.

The passengers' behaviour is not recorded, perhaps fortunately, although I suspect that most somehow manage to switch off their minds. I am always surprised by how few passengers listen to the flight attendant’s demonstrations  of the aircraft emergency equipment. One day, when air travel is completely safe and accidents are unknown, these displays of oxygen mask, life jacket and whistle will survive as a stylized and mysterious ritual, as formalized as the gestures of Kabuki actors – a reminder of the pioneer days when fear and danger stalked the aisles a few paces behind the drinks trolley.