The Long Fall of One-Eleven Heavy
I received an interesting Esquire article by email from a reader who thought I would enjoy the detailed story of Swissair Flight 111. Published in 2000, it’s called The Long Fall of One-Eleven Heavy and is a very emotional and literary description of the crash of Swissair flight 111.
Swissair flight 111 was a scheduled flight from New York City to Geneva Switzerland. The aircraft was a McDonnell Douglas MD-11. About an hour into the flight, the pilots realized that there was smoke in the cockpit and contacted ATC for a diversion to land. Unaware of the fierceness of the fire, they agreed with the controller that they would turn south to dump fuel before coming into land. Meanwhile, the flight crew went through the Air Conditioning Smoke Checklist, which was quite detailed and checked for a number of different simple causes.
14 minutes elapsed before the pilots realized the severity of the issue and declared an emergency. There was no further contact with the flight and a minute later, the recorders stopped recording, a sign of a catastrophic failure of the aircraft. Four minutes later, the MD-11 crashed into the ocean.
I wrote about this tragic accident briefly eight years ago, when I’d first started posting about commercial incidents. It’s interesting for me to see how my style and tone has changed over the years. I can’t remember the last time I managed to summarise an accident in under 600 words!
The strength of accident investigations is that it is not simply a blame-allocation exercise. 2008 NTSB statistics for scheduled flights show one accident per million flight hours, no fatalities. One of the reasons that aviation is relatively safe is because every accident is treated seriously, rather than dismissed the moment someone is found who could be held accountable.
The focus over the last few decades has been on how to avoid the same scenario or sequence of events in the future, which is critical.
A very good example of how this works is Canada’s Transportation Safety Board of the Swissair Flight 111 in 1998.
My piece is very short; I mainly wanted to make people see how easy it was to blame the pilots for making a bad decision when in reality, they were only the last safety net before catastrophic failure. In this case, it was the checklist which was the problem. Modern smoke and fume checklists make it clear that the time is critical and that crew should land as quickly as possible from the start, while they are still investigating the cause.
I always thought I might revisit some of those older posts, flesh out the details of those accidents which are important points in the history of aviation safety.
But time is limited and everything I write is a decision not to write something else. So it’s one of those things that I never get around to and probably never will.
The person who sent me the article was right, I enjoyed it a lot. It’s a very different angle, focused on the place of the crash and the people left behind and the emotions wrapped up in a tragic accident such as this one. It doesn’t step through the accident but it offers a lot of detail and a lot of context which not available in the report. I think you will enjoy it too.
And of course, there’s only so much time to read. So this week, I’m leaving you with this article by Michael Paterniti written in 2000, just two years after the crash.
It was summer; it was winter. The village disappeared behind skeins of fog. Fishermen came and went in boats named Reverence, Granite Prince, Souwester. The ocean, which was green and wild, carried the boats out past Jackrock Bank toward Pearl Island and the open sea. In the village, on the last shelf of rock, stood a lighthouse, whitewashed and octagonal with a red turret. Its green light beamed over the green sea, and sometimes, in the thickest fog or heaviest storm, that was all the fishermen had of land, this green eye dimly flashing in the night, all they had of home and how to get there — that was the question. There were nights when that was the only question.
If you are interested in the technical details and flight information, the accident report by the Canadian TSB is very long but still fairly easy to follow and will fill in the remaining gaps: Aviation Investigation Report A98H0003.