Before this becomes all Stephen King, all the time, I thought I'd do some quick write-ups of nonfiction I read a while back. All of these are survival stories of plane crashes. I am putting them in order of quality, from best to worst.

Flight 232: A Story of Disaster and Survival, by Laurence Gonzales. A meticulously researched and very readable account of the plane crash in a corn field fictionalized in Peter Weir's haunting movie Fearless. Gonzales (author of the fantastic Deep Survival) tells a gripping story of tragedy and heroism, of chance and courage and survival. I ended up skipping the chapter which gets into overly technical details of the exact cause of the mechanical failure that caused the crash, but otherwise it's a very well-done book about a tragedy that could have been so much worse.

About a third of the passengers died; if not for the quick thinking of the pilots (including one flying as a passenger who got recruited to help out), probably everyone would have; if not for their decision to try to land in a cornfield at great risk to their lives, probably people would have been killed on the ground. There are also a number of individual rescues, plus a fascinating account of the emergency response on the ground.

The book has a haunting quality, not just because of the deaths but because of the strangeness of the incident; many passengers found themselves lost in a cornfield, with the plane invisible, as if they'd been transported to another world. And like all large-scale incidents, some questions will never be answered. One man remembers a woman with perfect clarity, but no woman matching that description was on the flight. This is the crash where a man climbed back into the burning, smoke-filled plane to save a baby, whom he miraculously found unhurt in a luggage compartment. I knew that part, but there's a heartbreaking sequel that I didn't know: the baby girl committed suicide at the age of fifteen. No one knows why, or if the crash had anything to do with it.

Highly recommended, if you like that kind of thing and you're not feeling emotionally fragile.

81 Days Below Zero: The Incredible Survival Story of a World War II Pilot in Alaska's Frozen Wilderness, by Brian Murphy is the story of Leon Crane, a WWII test pilot who was the sole survivor of a crash in Alaska, and made his way back to safety in 81 days despite virtually no supplies or wilderness training, through a combination of grit, intelligence, and some incredibly good luck involving where he crashed - even ten miles in any other direction might have led him to miss something without which he would have been very unlikely to survive.

This is biography, not memoir, and is somewhat hampered by Crane's reluctance to talk about what happened, apparently not due to trauma but to a combination of natural reticence, humility, and the sense that it was a profound experience which could not be put into words, or which words might spoil. So a lot of the story is reconstructed from second-hand accounts, yet gets into enough detail of what Crane might have been thinking and so forth that I would consider it creative nonfiction rather than strict nonfiction, as the next two books are.

If you like survival stories, you will like this. Despite some hiccups, it's generally well-written, clear, vivid, and engrossing. I would say it's good but not great.

My trade paperback omits dialogue marks apparently at random for the first few chapters; I assume this is an error, because if it's a writing choice it's inexplicable and distracting. Hopefully it is an error and your version will not have it.

Nine Minutes, Twenty Seconds: The Tragedy & Triumph of ASA Flight 529, by Gary M. Pomerantz. This is similar to Gonzales' book, but tells the story of a different crash. It's good but not as good; it also has a lot of descriptions of horrific, month-long deaths by burns that I found hard to read. It's also haunting in other ways: the stewardess who saved many people's lives got PTSD and never really recovered; she had to stop flying, and while she finally did get on a plane many years later, as a passenger, she never managed to appreciate the lives she saved, but only blamed herself for the people she couldn't save.

As you can tell, I am fascinated by plane crashes. They seem to cause more and more severe PTSD in survivors than other types of accidents, perhaps because everyone but the pilots feel out of control and because survival is primarily about where you were sitting, not what you did. People don't seem to do well with terrible incidents that rub in how much chance is a factor. The freakish, unusual nature also seems to not help. (PTSD from car crashes occurs, but not that frequently. I think it's because drivers have some sense of control, and car crashes are relatively normal and common, unlike plane crashes.)

The Light of the Moon: Life, Death and the Birth of Advanced Trauma Life Support. A memoir by a man whose father, a doctor, crashed his small plane in a rural area at night with his entire family in it. His wife was killed, but his children survived with severe injuries. He was not happy with their treatment at the hospital they were initially transported to, and discovered that there were no nationwide guidelines for treating mass trauma victims. So he created and implemented them, nationwide, no doubt saving thousands and thousands of lives.

The author was a boy and unconscious after the crash, so he apparently interviewed his father to get an account of it. That part is very good. The rest of the book… Well, he's clearly not a pro author. There's endless accounts of the search for the plane which are sometimes interesting and sometimes incredibly tedious. His account of his own research as an adult into what happened is generally awful - he literally has pages and pages detailing how he googled stuff.

The parts I was really curious about - his and his family's recovery, and how his father managed to implement medical protocols nationwide - are mainly skipped over. He says that his nine-year-old brother lost ALL his memory of everything that happened before the crash. If he means his entire life, WOW do I want to hear about that and how he coped - he would have never remembered his mother, for instance. But since the author says nothing more about it, I assume it was a poorly worded sentence and he means that his brother had some degree of anteretrograde amnesia - maybe days, maybe even months - but not his whole life.

Interesting story, not told too well. Bad or flawed memoirs typically have this issue of too much filler and a failure to distinguish between what the author and reader is interested in.
the_rck: (Default)

From: [personal profile] the_rck

That's interesting about plane crashes and PTSD. When I fly, I'm generally less anxious once I'm in my seat because the part I can do something about is done (and approaching on the other end of the trip, but I don't look at that until we land). I don't know how I'd react after a crash, assuming I survived, but a big way that I deal with general anxiety is by admitting that there are a lot of things that happen that none of us can control. I freak out about the things that there might be something I can do about.
the_rck: (Default)

From: [personal profile] the_rck

I wonder-- I have disabling generalized anxiety. Part of that is being pretty constantly aware of all sorts of terrible things that are absolutely possible, both likely and unlikely, but that I personally can't do a damned thing about. If I let myself freak out over them, I'd never be able to function at all. As it is, I don't function all that well, but I'm focused on the things that I can do something about.

I don't, for example, panic over the thought of a school shooting at my daughter's school. Except when I'm in the building and could conceivably do-- or fail to do-- something. I stay aware that it's possible, but, if it's not right there and happening, I turn off that part of my mind, just disconnect it.

I do have serious anxiety over getting another tumor in one of my breasts. I'm the one who found the first one, and the mammogram and ultrasound didn't show it at all. That means that I can't just leave it to the screening. I have to do something, and I don't know if I'm doing enough or doing it right or...

I'm also about the only person I know who wasn't freaked out by 9/11. It was terrible. It was tragic. But it had always been something that could happen, so I wasn't surprised/shocked by it, and it wasn't something that I could do anything about, so... It didn't affect my anxiety at all because it wasn't new to me. I'd never specifically thought of it as possible, but my reaction was, 'Oh, yeah, that's always been possible. I'm not actually at any more or less risk than I was before.'
loligo: Scully with blue glasses (Default)

From: [personal profile] loligo

I freak out about the things that there might be something I can do about.

I am the same way. Air travel doesn't phase me a bit, whereas I would vastly prefer to never drive a car again in my life. Even riding in a car with my husband and kids produces some anxiety -- because even though he is a much better and more confident driver than I am, I still feel like I have to monitor everything happening on the road JUST IN CASE. By the end of an all-day road trip I am a nervous wreck. But I can ride for hours in a minivan with my coworkers with little to no anxiety at all -- because there are three other adults in the car keeping an eye on things, and no kids to protect.

My husband has some fears about air travel, and we have this debate all the time. He's like, "But if the plane starts going down, there's nothing you can do!!" and I'm like, "Yeah, isn't it great? Way better than that metal box of death hurtling down the highway!" And then I get to feel a bit smug, because the accident statistics are totally on my side.
kore: (Default)

From: [personal profile] kore

I would bet money that this particular difference (anxiety over what you can control vs what you can't) depends a lot on whether or not the person found their caretakers reliable when growing up. It's like trust issues -- a lot of people I know who have fear of flying know intellectually the pilot is qualified and the plane probably won't crash, but they have difficulty giving up control because they have bad experiences with that. Being at the mercy of something you can't control and can't predict for long periods of time seems to be the biggest cause of severe PTSD (at least from what I know/have read).
sholio: sun on winter trees (Default)

From: [personal profile] sholio

This entire comment thread is absolutely fascinating to me, because I also fall heavily onto the control-freak end of things (and grew up with not-so-reliable caregivers; even when I was a little girl, it was fairly obvious to me that when I was able to achieve more control over my environment, I was usually better off and better able to get my desired outcomes than when the adults were in control), and right up until reading this thread, I had assumed that it was a human universal that people feel more unsafe and uncomfortable when they have less control over things around them. Different psychologies, man!
the_rck: (Default)

From: [personal profile] the_rck

I don't think that's the case for me. My parents are very good people, but I'm not willing, for example, to send my daughter off alone to visit them because I don't trust them to actually go and pick her up at the train station. They were prone, once I was about thirteen, to taking off for expeditions without telling me or my sister that they were going or how long they'd be gone or anything at all. This was the 1980s, so we didn't have cell phones.

I'm fine, anxiety wise, with things I can't do anything about and really, really have problems (disabling problems) with things that I have some degree of control over.
kore: (Default)

From: [personal profile] kore

But in general, there's a pretty strong statistical tendency for people to be extremely traumatized not by obvious stuff like how horrific the event was or whether they were injured, but by how helpless they felt.

That makes sense....hmmm, that would also suggest to me that kids growing up in horrible situations would have worse PTSD than adults who lived through horrible situations maybe, since children so often rarely have control over anything in their environment.
the_rck: (Default)

From: [personal profile] the_rck

In the last thirty years, I've only driven two or three times. I have a license, but I panic more than a little when I get behind the wheel. I also have a visual problem that means that I can't safely drive if traffic's moving faster than about 10 mph (I figured that part out about twelve years ago, but I'm pretty sure it was a problem well before that and contributed to me panicking). This means I've had to make peace with being a passenger. I still, however, go for a non-existent brake pedal from time to time when riding with other people.

I also have problems with not quite believing that maneuvering a thing the size of a car with any precision is entirely possible. I know that it is. I see people do it all the time. But part of my brain insists that it shouldn't actually be possible. (I have a similar problem with baseball/softball and tennis. Obviously, people do hit and/or catch those balls, but my mind considers the odds of success so tiny as to be vanishingly unlikely.) This makes riding on buses very... interesting.
sovay: (Rotwang)

From: [personal profile] sovay

As you can tell, I am fascinated by plane crashes.

Have you seen Charlie Victor Romeo (2013)? It's the film version of a stage play which was itself adapted from the black box recordings of six real-life in-flight emergencies, both accidents and incidents. If you decide to watch the movie, I strongly suggest not looking up in advance which flights the transcriptions belong to. It's minimalist, no-budget, theatrical, really compelling. Also, currently streaming on Netflix.
sovay: (Rotwang)

From: [personal profile] sovay

No, but I think I'll check it out. (Yes, I probably do have a number of flight outcomes memorized.)

rmc28: Rachel smiling against background of trees, with newly-cut short hair (Default)

From: [personal profile] rmc28

Oooh, this sounds interesting. Thank you.
veejane: Pleiades (Default)

From: [personal profile] veejane

FWIW, the pilots of United 232 weren't actually trying to land in a corn field. They were trying to land on a (short, not the one they intended) runway, and indeed bounced off said runway a couple times, before the ass-over-teakettle maneuver that landed the fuselage in a cornfield within the airport's land area.

I picked up the book because of a gripping expository section excerpted on Longreads summer before last -- the bit where the fuselage broke open on the second bounce, and the passengers in the back half found themselves staring at the sky. But what stayed with me after I'd finished the book was the fact that the two front-seat pilots were attempting to fly that plane with all their physical might, wrestling the yokes for most of an hour. Despite intellectually understanding that all the arm strength in the world would probably not make a difference (indeed, it didn't), they kept on doing it, and didn't even seem to really imagine not doing so.
veejane: Pleiades (Default)

From: [personal profile] veejane

No, I think you're thinking of something else. With no hydraulics, they had no ability to steer in a particular direction, so no choice in where they landed. The runway they ended up on was the one the firefighters had set up as a staging area (perpendicular to the intended runway), so all the fire trucks had to be driven off it higgledy-piggledy as they realized the plane was going to land wherever it wanted. (The famous final-approach line was, "You want to be particular and make it a runway?" That was after they were sure they'd at least make the airfield.)
redbird: closeup of me drinking tea (Default)

From: [personal profile] redbird

I know about this one because I read the pilot's memoir of it online a few years ago. What stuck with me was both the pattern of one thing going horribly wrong, and then several things going noticeably well (from the weather to the extra pilot to the fact that they had enough warning to have extra people at the local hospital). Also that the design of that airplane is an example of when "redundant" systems aren't.
veejane: Pleiades (Default)

From: [personal profile] veejane

Indeed, in addition to the Fitch interview with Errol Morris mentioned above, there's a YouTube video of the pilot, who after he retired got into lecturing about systems analysis (and, as you say: about several things going right). I think the video is from 1992 or so, and the quality's terrible, but it's interesting to watch.

(Not least because it was clearly kinda new, in emergency-management circles, both the regional-level preparedness and the acceptance of interpersonal strategies like crew resource management. They're completely baseline today.)
aurimae: close-up of niobe's face (rome: niobe)

From: [personal profile] aurimae

i'm familiar with UA 232 by way of errol morris's excellent tv episode featuring denny fitch, the recruited pilot & instructor, retelling his account of the event. i assume gonzales may have made a passing remark about it in the book, but i highly recommend it
kore: (Default)

From: [personal profile] kore

Ooh, Morris is good. //documentary geek
oursin: Brush the Wandering Hedgehog by the fire (Default)

From: [personal profile] oursin

This was in today's paper and seemed to resonate with this discussion: account by the man who was randomly attacked at Leytonstone Tube Station last December:
He thinks of his attack like he would a car crash he could have done nothing about: “It happened, but it doesn’t have much to do with who I am.”
ckd: small blue foam shark (Default)

From: [personal profile] ckd

Some others you might find interesting, if you haven't read them already:

35 Miles From Shore: The Ditching and Rescue of ALM Flight 980, by Emilio Corsetti III.

Before US1549 there was this water much worse conditions, and not in the middle of a river thronged with ships that could come to the rescue.

Freefall, by William Hoffer and Marilyn Mona Hoffer.

The somewhat more well-known "Gimli Glider" incident, where an Air Canada 767 ran out of fuel at 41,000 ft while flying over Manitoba...luckily, piloted by an experienced glider pilot and a former RCAF officer who'd flown from the Gimli airfield before it was closed.
ext_58972: Mad! (Default)

From: [identity profile]

Not a book, but a website: The Aviation Herald ( catalogues aviation incidents, accidents, and crashes as they happen, with daily updated situation reports based on the official notices posted by airlines and investigatory authorities. Very technical, aimed at the flying community rather than laypeople, and rigorously curated -- you won't see articles culled from newspapers here, only official incident reports. Search for MH17 if you want to see a chronological transcript of how the unfortunate incident (the shoot-down of a Malaysian Boeing 777 over the Ukraine last year) unfolded, and how the investigation(s) proceeded and reported: it's dry but very engrossing.

From: [identity profile]

I'm horrified by accidents that happen at random. One I think is particularly mean is a car crash on Hwy 101 near San Francisco. A tow truck was driving on an overpass about 101 and swerved to miss somebody else. The tow truck then went off the road and fell onto 101, landing on an SUV and killing all four passengers. I mean, what can you do, if you're driving down the road and a tow truck falls out of the sky and lands on your car? That really freaks me out.

From: [identity profile]

I once had a metal car wheel fall off an overpass, land right on front of my car and bounce. I had no time to swerve, so if it had bounced at me, i would have gone through my windshield. Luckily it bounced to the side and went off the road. I didn't hear a crash, so I think it was being carried in a truck load or some such.

Totally could've been a "death by freak accident." It was the middle of the night, with no one else on the road. A few seconds later, and it would have endangered no one.

From: [identity profile]

Another website of possible interest is Fear of Landing by Sylvia Wrigley, who also apparently writes SFF stories. She has published a few books about aviation accidents but I have not read those (nor her stories).

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