Thursday, January 1, 2015

Flight 232: A Story of Disaster and Survival by Laurence Gonzales

Flight 232: A Story of Disaster and SurvivalFlight 232: A Story of Disaster and Survival by Laurence Gonzales
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Suppose you are a huge sports fan of a particular football team. Suppose that team is playing in the NFL championship. Your team is up 1 point, they have ball, it's 4th and 1 yard with 2:01 on the clock. The last three plays were run but defense is holding tight. The ball is snapped to the quarterback who fakes a pass then throws a real pass too long for the receiver. The ball is intercepted and the opposing team runs the ball forty yards for a touch down. Rather than kick for the extra point, they complete a 2 point conversion. Your team gets the ball again and the quarter back is sacked three times and fumbles on fourth down. The opposing team has the ball, it's snapped and the quarterback takes a knee.

Who lost the game? A good coach will commend the team, praise the quarterback for the first half, then concentrate on the game holistically without singling out any player. It is a team sport and took nearly three hours to play out on the field, after all. The fans remember the overthrown ball, the sacks, and the fumble. The coach disaggregates all of the plays throughout the game.

If you are still reading after my football story, know that it was an analogy. What the author of this book does beautifully is twofold; the crash of 232 is personalized as he retells the stories of the victims on the airplane. Know this much - they were all victims and suffered greatly from the experience even those few who were uninjured. The reader is taken through the grueling forty some odd minutes from the time the engine blew and the fan disk damaged the hydraulic lines, to the harrowing crash on the runway then continues to the aftermath - clean up then life continued for many. The other chapters interspersed in the book explores, in fascinating detail, the journey of making a DC10, the chemistry of forging the perfect titanium, and measures put into place to maximize safety.

Like the fans of the football team, many want an easy scapegoat; the last person that touched the ball or checked the engine fan disk integrity. The truth of the matter is that the crash in 1989 of Flight 232 was a rare confluence of circumstances (an irregularity in the titanium, multiple checks that missed the resulting slow growing crack, the architecture of the DC10, the fact that it is impossible to fly a DC10 without hydraulics, etc.) that resulted in a catastrophic event.

There is a third element to the book that is miraculous. Another rare confluence of circumstances that resulted in the survival of one third of the people on that airplane that crashed on an airfield in Iowa, that nearly just had a rough landing but instead, without hydraulics and manipulated mostly by throttle by a passenger who happened to be a flight instructor, the copilot who instinctively pushed in a throttle that prevented the plane from spiraling, the airfield situated in farmland, and many other miracles that added up to people surviving.

The book details the landing, the dip of the right wing, the resulting nose to the ground and tail perpendicular to the ground, the breaking apart like the Titanic, the fireball, the sounds, the smoke, the smells, and even the dissonance of the beautiful sunny day. The details are uplifting and heart wrenching. The book is very well researched then explained in terms that even the non chemistry person can understand. I'll admit to cheating a bit. I googled the crash. Someone caught it on tape. An unusual feat in 1989. Go look at the images. Pull up the short video of the crash then come right back.

I'll wait for you. Go ahead. But come back.

Go on.

Are you back?

Good. Now I will reiterate that people survived. Don't get me wrong. It was a a horrific catastrophe. 112 people died. Yet 186 people lived. Many walked out of the plane and out of the cornfields. So bad was the crash, when some walked out of the fields, first responders yelled at them for being too close to a major catastrophe, what are they doing wandering around an old aiffield, anyway. They weren't expecting any survivors.

So well researched is this book that I completely agree with the author's conclusion. Like a good coach who knows every member of his team, the author disaggregates the information and the fault does not solely rest on the last person that checked the engine fan disk. Conversely, the miracle of flight 232 can not be solely attributed to any one person. Building and flying the DC-10 was a team effort. Bringing it down in the safest manner on two engines, no hydraulics, and a couple of holes in the ship took a team of capable, skilled, and, I'd add, inspired team of people.

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