"This is the kind of case the Board has never had to deal with - a head-on collision between the credibility of a flight crew versus the airworthiness of the aircraft." - NTSB Investigator-in-Charge Leslie Dean Kampschror. On April 4, 1979, a Boeing 727 with 82 passengers and a crew of seven rolled over and plummeted from an altitude of 39,000 feet to within seconds of crashing, were it not for the crew's actions to save the plane. The cause of the unexplained dive was the subject of one of the longest NTSB investigations at that time. While the crew's efforts to save TWA 841 were initially hailed as heroic, that all changed when safety inspectors found 21 minutes of the 30-minute cockpit voice recorder tape blank. The captain of the flight, Harvey "Hoot" Gibson, subsequently came under suspicion for deliberately erasing the tape in an effort to hide incriminating evidence. The voice recorder was never evaluated for any deficiencies. From that moment on, the investigation was focused on the crew to the exclusion of all other evidence. It was an investigation based on rumors, innuendos, and speculation. Eventually the NTSB, despite sworn testimony to the contrary, blamed the crew for the incident by having improperly manipulated the controls, leading to the dive. This is the story of an NTSB investigation gone awry, and one pilot's decades-long battle to clear his name.
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pits large faceless entitles against a small group
I just flew from Minneapolis to Atlanta to Dublin and hearing an airline story immediately piqued my interest. I think it’s important to NOT Google what happened to fully enjoy the book as the author is considerate enough to give detailed stories within the major body. Like a good action movie, something big happens by the 18-minute mark. At first, the writing is crisp and tight, the author writes enough so the reader can get invested, but not too much time to get lost in minutia. While the setting is an airplane, what the book really provides is a “you decide” book that is detailed enough for someone to take notes is if they so chose. You will hear the story of the incident in carefully outlined detail, then many different points of view, but ultimately that of the defense of the pilot Captain “Hoot” Gibson.
What makes the story compelling is that in 1979, there was no Google or the social media platforms and videos that might have added evidence one way or the other. The book mentions this connection, but think about research through real newspapers, microfilm, and finding people. As a member of Generation X living in the Washington DC suburbs, my first plane tragedy memory came from Air Florida Flight 90, a plane that hit the 14th Street Bridge in bad weather. This flight, however, was not an icy mess from takeoff, rather, an opportunity for a pilot to and crew to be at their finest. As we look to a future with self-driving cars, one wonders if a computer could have done what this pilot did.
Dialogue is an important part of most audiobooks. For this book to succeed, we need different voices. There are some tower-to-airport, airport-to-tower dialogues that give it a cinematic feel, but overall it is a straightforward narrative. How does the book treat its primary and secondary audience? The primary audience, the aviation industry might be very happy with the level of detail and that even those experts may learn something. The secondary audience, the general public will find that there’s explication to help them get through some parts, but like in a jury trial, detailed diagrams, images, and video would make the concepts more concrete. There is a universal component, however, that all readers can tie to, and that is the feeling of being in the minority and the microaggressions that can go along with that.
Where I feel the book succeeds is creating this feeling of emptiness for “Hoot,” the pilot. He feels he excelled under adversity and instead gets ostracized. In the classic “show, don’t tell” fashion we feel for him as stewardesses refuse to fly with him, a training evaluator makes his life more difficult, as do some of the investigators. He loses his circle of friends when things go sour. It’s a story of a hero who becomes an outcast. Much of the book is a defense of Hoot, the pilot, but it makes a tremendous social statement and provides a lesson in empathy. It pits large faceless entitles against a small group, even a single man.
The majority of the book contrasts the strong first few hours. Around two-and-a-half hours, the book goes back to Hoot’s childhood, how he got into flying, and so on. While most audiobook listeners shun an abridged volume, I believe a tighter version, that kept the tension going would have succeeded better than this eleven hour offering. It’s a good detailed and well researched book, but we go from sympathetic and engaged juror, to someone who is watching the clock with inordinate amounts of time used to prove and defend the pilot. For example, the author dedicates almost half-an-hour to the timing of picking up meal trays. While this time stamp is important for a jury trial and to set the record straight, the story loses its steam proving and beating a dead horse with detail than focusing on the central theme, an innocent crew ends up being the victim of groupthink and bias stemming from perceived guilt, largely a function of an erased flight tape.
Is it worth a read? Yes, I think so, but in the end I would retract my statement to not Google, rather, I would Google the images that could help me understand flaps, aircraft schematics and maneuvers.
The narrator, Fred Filbrich, provides a well-read account. I didn’t notice the narrator as his voice was a warm background until the book switched from primary narrator to tower to flight and flight to tower dialogue. It’s an easy listen and I found myself moving through hours of the book without noticing time going by. Except for conversations between the cockpit and the tower, the book mostly lacks dialogue that would have made the narrator’s job a bit easier. Overall, however, the narrator made a highly technical volume pleasurable.
Audiobook was provided for review by the author.
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Unbelievable what they had to deal with.
An amazing true story, where the preconceived outcome was pushed over the actual provable facts, so typical of government bureaucrats. Damn the consequences to these men's lives, careers and reputations, because at no time was Boeing and their stooges in the government ever going to let them take any of the heat for this. Having spent years in Aviation myself, The narrative of pilot error over mechanical failure seems to be the first thing pushed, as it was in this case. Amazing detail really sell this books point. The narration by Fred Filbrich is very technical and understandable, if not particularly dynamic. Still very listenable, just don't go in expecting Luke Daniels or Michael Kramer.
I was given a copy of this book free of charge by the Author in exchange for an honest review through Audiobook Boom.