SURVIVAL IN THE SKY (1996)
(4-PART CABLE-TV DOCUMENTARY)
- 4-TAPE VHS BOXED SET
- VIDEO -- Full Frame (1.33:1)(In Color)
- AUDIO -- Hi-Fi Stereo (English)
- RUNNING TIME FOR ALL 4 PARTS -- 3 hours, 12 minutes
- SPECIAL FEATURES -- None
- TAPE SPEED -- Standard Play (SP)
- VIDEO RELEASE DATE -- March 21, 2000 (Unapix Home Entertainment)
The Learning Channel (TLC) produced a four-part documentary in 1996 called "SURVIVAL IN THE SKY", centering attention on various commercial aviation accidents. The series was released on home video early in the year 2000 in the form of a 4-Tape VHS boxed set.
That now-hard-to-find set is a prized part of my video collection. I was fortunate enough to purchase a new copy from Amazon.com on March 22, 2001, before this excellent mini-series went out of print.
The four outstanding "Survival In The Sky" programs are expertly narrated by and offer up plenty of archival video and film footage of the plane crashes being discussed, along with expert commentary throughout the four-part series from crash-site investigators and some of the people who actually lived through the accidents themselves.
A person interested in such things, as morbid as the subject matter is, will certainly enjoy watching these tapes produced by TLC Video and distributed by Unapix Home Entertainment of Seattle.
Here's my detailed review of all four parts:
"SURVIVAL IN THE SKY" -- EPISODE #1 -- "BLAMING THE PILOT"
The first episode in the mini-series is subtitled "Blaming The Pilot", and takes a look at four aviation accidents that occurred between the years 1972 and 1996. Here's a rundown of the accidents covered during this 51-minute segment of the documentary:
1.) The program's brief first chapter involves the crash of Birgenair Flight 301 on February 6, 1996, a Boeing 757 which stalled after taking off from the Dominican Republic. The plane plunged into the sea, where it still remains, with 189 bodies inside.
2.) June 18, 1972 -- A British European Airways Trident jetliner (Flight #548) crashed shortly after takeoff from London's Heathrow Airport. This "pilot's error" accident was due to the airplane's front flaps (or slats) not being in the proper position during the entire takeoff period, causing the aircraft to stall and fall out of the sky.
It was later learned that the BEA pilot (Captain Key) had probably suffered a heart attack during the critical moments when the Trident was lifting off, and had possibly retracted the flaps too soon, thus causing the plane to crash. 118 people were killed in the accident.
3.) March 27, 1977 -- The day when the worst loss-of-life aviation accident in world history (to date) took place. It happened in the Canary Islands in Spain when two Boeing 747 jumbo jets (belonging to Pan Am and KLM-Royal Dutch Airlines) collided on a runway at Los Rodeos Airport in Tenerife in thick fog. 583 people died. Only 61 persons got out alive.
One of those 61 survivors was the co-pilot of the Pan Am jet, Bob Bragg, who was interviewed for this TLC program and gives this chapter an added chilling quality because of his first-hand account of seeing the KLM plane headed toward him back in '77.
The Tenerife segment of "Survival In The Sky" is positively riveting, with a computer simulation being used to trace the movements of the KLM and Pan Am Jumbos. It was determined that the cause of the devastating double-747 crash was a combination of pilot error and miscommunication with air traffic control.
The KLM Captain was eager to get his plane in the air after a lengthy delay on the ground at Tenerife (due to a bomb threat at a nearby airport). The KLM aircraft did not have authorization to start its takeoff roll, but it did so anyway, without being aware that the Pan Am 747 was on the runway at the same time (temporarily using the runway itself as a taxiway).
The fog was so thick, however, that the KLM pilots did not see the Pan American jet until it was too late. KLM tried desperately to lift off the runway to avoid a collision with Pan Am (possibly even before full "Vr" rotation speed was reached), and the nose came off the ground....but the fuselage and undercarriage of the KLM jet slammed into Pan Am, causing a massive explosion of jet fuel.
The Pan Am pilots (including Bragg), in disbelief, saw the oncoming lights of the KLM jet as it barrelled toward them, with Pan Am trying to vacate the runway quickly...but failing to do so in time.
In what seems absolutely incredible to me, there were still pieces of airplane wreckage covering the ground at Tenerife's airport almost two decades after the KLM/Pan Am crash had taken place. Some of that wreckage was picked up by Bob Bragg and shown on camera during this documentary.
For the trivia-minded, the Pan Am 747 that was written off on 3/27/77 was the exact same airplane (N736PA; "Clipper Victor") which inaugurated Boeing 747 passenger service in January 1970.
4.) This section of the program details the loss of Air Inter Flight 148 (an Airbus A320) on January 20, 1992, in France. A faulty auto-pilot switch resulted in the twin-engined A320 slamming into a mountainside, killing 87 of the 96 persons aboard the airplane.
The Air Inter chapter leads into the topic of the Airbus A320's computer flaws, which were first noticed (tragically) when a brand-new Air France A320 crashed into trees off of the end of a runway during an air show in France on June 26, 1988. Fortunately, only three people were fatally wounded in that crash.
If this program had been made a few years later, another tragic accident that could have been inserted into the "Blaming The Pilot" portion of this documentary is the crash of Singapore Airlines Flight 006 in Taipei, Taiwan, on October 31st, 2000, when a Boeing 747-400 (painted in Singapore Airlines' gorgeous "Tropical Megatop" colors) tried to take off on a closed runway and crashed into various construction vehicles that were on the runway. 83 of the 179 people on board the 747 perished in that accident.
The last words spoken by narrator Will Lyman in this program are worth sharing (especially if you know someone who is scared to death to board a commercial airplane):
"One comforting thought -- if you boarded a jet at random every single day, it would be 26,000 years (on average) before you were involved in a major crash. And even then, the odds are you'd survive."
"SURVIVAL IN THE SKY" -- EPISODE #2 -- "DEADLY WEATHER"
Part 2, which lasts 48 minutes, includes five "Deadly Weather" airliner crashes that occurred between the years 1982 and 1994:
1.) The January 13, 1982, crash of "Palm 90", an Air Florida Boeing 737-200 which took off in near-blizzard conditions from National Airport in Washington, D.C., and crashed into the Potomac River just seconds after lifting off.
This famous air crash comes complete with extremely dramatic and heartbreaking video, as rescuers attempt to pluck the only five Palm 90 survivors from the icy Potomac. You'll see the footage of bystander-soon-to-be-hero Lenny Skutnik as he dives into the freezing river to save a female passenger who was about to perish due to the cold conditions she was experiencing. Incredible "Live" footage indeed.
This crash, I suppose, does belong within this "Deadly Weather" segment of the documentary mini-series -- but, while the snowy, cold weather conditions were indeed a contributory cause for the accident, those adverse conditions weren't the main reason for Palm 90 dropping out of the Washington sky.
Pilot error was the ultimate cause of this disaster, after if was determined (incredibly) that the pilots had failed to activate the 737's anti-icing systems before taking off. It was a monumental blunder that took 79 lives -- including 5 people on the 14th Street bridge in Washington, who lost their lives when the jetliner struck the bridge just prior to going into the river.
This video includes replays from Flight 90's CVR (Cockpit Voice Recorder) as the airplane took off and then slammed into the bridge. It's one of the most violent CVR cockpit recordings I've ever heard, with the sound of the plane impacting the bridge resulting in an enormous and ear-splitting "bang" on the CVR tape -- which came just an instant after this frightening exchange between the pilot and co-pilot:
"We're going down, Larry!"
"I know it!"
2.) The loss of American Eagle Flight 4184 near the small town of Roselawn, Indiana, on October 31, 1994. The ATR-72 propliner, carrying 68 passengers and crew members on a flight from Indianapolis to Chicago, nose-dived into a field after experiencing icing conditions while circling in a holding pattern prior to landing at Chicago's O'Hare Airport.
The ice build-up on the winged surfaces of the aircraft eventually led to an uncommanded rudder deflection, causing the plane to roll sharply. The pilots could not control the plane at this point and it plummeted to the ground at a speed of 450-500 MPH. No one survived.
3.) Chapter 3 of this program revolves around the crash of Delta Airlines Flight 191 on August 2nd, 1985, in Dallas, Texas. The widebodied Lockheed L-1011 Tri-Star jetliner crashed short of Runway 17-Left at DFW Airport while attempting to land during a severe thunderstorm.
After striking the ground, the crippled jet crossed a busy highway (killing one person in a car) and then smashed into two huge water tanks that held millions of gallons of water apiece. 134 people on board the plane were killed. 29 survived the crash.
One of the highlights of this Delta 191 chapter is footage filmed inside a simulator as a Delta training pilot attempts to re-create Flight 191's desperate plight. This is fascinating footage, as we see the simulator bouncing all over the place and the pilot struggling to keep his plane in the air during the heavy thunderstorm that rages outside.
The southern-accented pilot talks to his airplane as well during this simulated attempted landing -- "Wow! Look at the tailwind! We've got a heck of a tailwind here! Oh my God! Come on, come on, airplane! Come on, fly baby! Come on, you can make it!" -- making this segment of the video seem even more surreal.
The pilot in the simulator did not manage to land his L-1011 safely. Just like the real Flight 191, the re-creation in the simulator resulted in the plane crashing short of the runway due to the intense weather.
If anybody thinks that landing a big airliner in heavy weather is a piece of cake, they should watch this amazing "In The Simulator" footage that TLC has provided for this documentary. Scary, but fascinating, stuff to be sure.
The 1985 Delta accident prompted airlines and airports to install more sophisticated equipment for detecting the dangerous phenomenon known as "wind shear".
4.) The fourth and fifth accidents examined in this program are related to one another -- exploring the mystery of why two different Boeing 737s suddenly dropped out of the sky for no discernible reason in 1991 and again in 1994.
The loss of United Airlines Flight 585 on March 3rd, 1991, began the 737 mystery. That Boeing twin-jet dove into the ground while attempting a landing at Colorado Springs, Colorado, in very windy conditions. All 25 souls on board died.
5.) When another Boeing 737 (US Air Flight 427) inexplicably crashed while on final approach near Pittsburgh on September 8, 1994, it raised a whole lot of eyebrows at Boeing. For it appeared that the 737, the most popular airplane in the sky, had some kind of major, undetected flaw.
The US Air crash claimed 132 lives, with nobody surviving the accident after the plane encountered a severe "wake vortex" air stream that had been emitted by the jet preceding US Air 427 into Runway 28R at Pittsburgh.
The wake turbulence caused an uncommanded movement in the 737's tail rudder (similar to what occurred three years earlier at Colorado Springs). Investigators finally came to the conclusion that the probable cause for the US Air crash was a faulty valve inside the plane's tail rudder system, causing the rudder to move all by itself.
If either of the 737s that crashed had been at a higher altitude, it's very likely the pilots would have been able to save each plane. But, as fate would have it, both jets were at a very low altitude when their respective unwanted rudder deflections occurred, with very little time (and virtually no altitude) to correct the situation.
"SURVIVAL IN THE SKY" -- EPISODE #3 -- "A WING AND A PRAYER"
"A Wing And A Prayer" has a running time of 47 minutes and probes three accidents during the 1980s:
1.) The very strange story of Aloha Airlines Flight 243 on April 28, 1988. While flying at 19,000 feet above Hawaii, one-third of the Boeing 737's roof suddenly tore off of the airplane, sucking one flight attendant out of the jet. Luckily, however, she was the only fatality among the 95 people who were on board Flight 243. The plane miraculously was able to land safely, despite a huge portion of its upper fuselage missing.
The 737 that was involved in this bizarre accident was an older model of the popular jetliner, built in 1969. The cause of this incident was "metal fatigue", due to the nearly 20 years in service and the large number of takeoff and landing cycles this particular plane had endured during that period.
One passenger on Flight 243 had even noticed a large crack near a door, but was too shy to tell anybody in authority about that observation. The sheer skill of the pilots brought the stricken plane in safely at Kahului Airport on the Hawaiian island of Maui.
There is some spectacular footage on this video of Aloha 243 after it had landed, showing several passengers still strapped in their seats, fully visible inside the airplane because of the 737's remarkable "roofless" condition.
2.) August 12th, 1985 -- Japan Air Lines Flight 123, a jam-packed Boeing 747, crashed in Japan after having a large chunk of its tail literally fall off of the aircraft while at an altitude of 23,000 feet.
520 people lost their lives in this JAL disaster, making it the worst single-airplane accident in world history in terms of number of fatalities. Amazingly, though, four persons managed to survive this crash.
The harrowing ordeal of Flight 123 lasted for 32 minutes, as the pilots battled the out-of-control jumbo jetliner in a desperate attempt to regain control. Unfortunately, they lost the battle. The plane struck two separate mountains before finally coming to rest in pieces.
A portion of the last radio transmissions between air-traffic controllers and JAL 123 are played on this program. "Uncontrollable! Uncontrollable!" were the words heard from the cockpit.
3.) The incredible saga of United Airlines 232 is chronicled. UAL Flight 232 was a heavy McDonnell Douglas DC-10 flying from Denver to Chicago on July 19, 1989, when it suffered the unheard-of loss of all three of its hydraulic systems, making the plane almost impossible to turn or control.
The tremendous skill of the flight crew was the only thing that saved 186 lives that day, as the pilots were somehow able to steer the big jet by using only engine thrust from the two working engines on the wings. These unorthodox steering maneuvers enabled Captain Al Haynes and his co-pilots (including an off-duty pilot who happened to be on board) to almost bring the plane in for a successful emergency landing at Sioux City, Iowa.
The DC-10 fell just short of the runway, flipped over, and burst into flames, killing 112 passengers and crew members. Amateur video taken from outside an airport fence dramatically captures the last moments of United 232.
This lengthy video chapter on the United DC-10 Iowa crash features a good deal of ATC and in-the-cockpit (CVR) transmissions, which are fascinating to listen to as the pilots wrestle with their airplane. At one point you can even hear the off-duty pilot (Denny Fitch) come into the cockpit and introduce himself to the other pilots. The extra hands on the flight deck provided by Fitch turned out to be a major asset to Haynes' crew, as Fitch worked the throttles to steer the plane.
This is a truly outstanding and inspiring chapter in this video series.
In 1992, a television movie was made about the Iowa accident, entitled "Crash Landing: The Rescue Of Flight 232" (also known as "A Thousand Heroes"). Charlton Heston and Richard Thomas co-starred in the film.
"SURVIVAL IN THE SKY" -- EPISODE #4 -- "CRASH DETECTIVES"
This fourth and final installment of The Learning Channel's "Survival In The Sky" series of aviation programs documents several more airplane accidents (from 1953 to 1996).
"Episode #4: Crash Detectives" (run time: 46 minutes) gives viewers an up-close look at how airplane crashes are investigated, and eventually solved, and the methods by which this daunting task is accomplished by a series of tireless workers from the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB).
The aviation accidents that take center stage during this program are:
1.) The story of TACA Flight 510. Happily, this aircraft accident (involving a Boeing 767-200 with 236 passengers and crew) did not result in any deaths.
The 767 was landing in the rain at Guatemala City on April 6, 1993, and touched down too far down the runway to permit a safe stop. The plane went off the runway and struck multiple houses. Official cause of the incident was "pilot error".
A passenger in the plane's cabin recorded the incident with a home-video recorder, which is shown on this TLC program.
2.) One of the most famous (or infamous) plane crashes ever was the loss of TWA Flight 800 on July 17, 1996, which took the lives of everyone on the Boeing 747 jumbo jet (230 people died).
The true cause of the TWA 800 disaster is still shrouded in some mystery. It was found that the center fuel tank of the B747-100 exploded shortly after the jet had departed from New York's JFK Airport. But the exact cause of the explosion is still in doubt.
3.) ValuJet Flight 592, a DC-9 headed to Atlanta, plunged into the Florida Everglades on Saturday afternoon, May 11, 1996, killing all 110 persons on the plane (including three relatives of this writer, which makes watching anything about this ValuJet crash a bit harder).
The ValuJet disaster occurred after some oxygen generators (canisters) in the cargo compartment exploded, starting a fire which burned through many of the airplane's control cables. The fire in the cargo area soon sent dense smoke throughout the airplane, including the cockpit. The plane's pilots asked to return to Miami International (from where the DC-9 had departed just six minutes earlier), but they didn't make it.
ValuJet was never able to fully recover from the accident involving Flight 592, and the airline merged with Florida-based AirTran Airways in 1997.
For the first time ever, cameras were allowed to follow the activities of the "Go Team" assembled by the NTSB, and we see the TLC cameras doing just that during the 10-minute ValuJet segment of this "Crash Detectives" program.
4.) This chapter of the video shows what happened to British Midland Airways Flight #92 on January 8, 1989, in England. It was a Boeing 737-400 that was trying to land after an engine failure. Incredibly, the pilots made a fatal mistake when they accidentally shut down the remaining working engine on the aircraft, resulting in no powered forward thrust at all. The plane crashed a thousand feet short of the runway, killing 47 of the 126 people who occupied the jetliner.
5.) The next section of the program explores the chain of accidents that plagued the world's very first commercial jet aircraft model, the "Comet", built by England's De Havilland Aircraft Company.
The first Comet tragedy came on March 3, 1953, when a DH-106 Comet wearing the colors of Canadian Pacific Airlines crashed on takeoff in Pakistan, killing all 11 on board her.
The second accident occurred just two months later, on May 2, 1953, as a BOAC Comet went down in India, taking the lives of all 43 on the plane.
A serious design flaw soon became apparent when two more Comets fell from the sky over Italy in 1954. These crashes (on January 10th and April 8th of 1954) both involved Comets in the livery of Britain's #1 airline, BOAC.
The January crash killed 35; the April calamity saw 21 people perish. No one survived either accident. The cause of both of the Italy crashes was metal fatigue, which had mainly occurred around the extra-large windows in the Comet's passenger cabin.
This video provides some unique footage from various black-and-white British-produced promotional films for the De Havilland Comet (circa 1949 and the early 1950s). Many airlines around the globe had ordered the Comet, which was set to beat Boeing's 707 to the punch by several years and capture a large share of the world's commercial jet transport market. But the four major accidents which occurred to the Comet fleet within just a 13-month time period would forever seal the fate of the world's first fleet of passenger jets.
6.) On March 3, 1974, a Turkish Airlines McDonnell Douglas DC-10 operating as Flight 981 was destroyed when it de-pressurized in flight over France. The death toll was huge -- 346 were killed. Zero survived.
This catastrophic accident was caused by a design flaw in the DC-10's cargo-door locking mechanism. The door appeared to be locked tightly, but it wasn't. It burst open in flight, causing the cabin floor above to collapse, which resulted in some of the airplane's control cables being severed, leading to the plane's ultimate destruction.
7.) American Airlines Flight 96, a DC-10, had a cargo door open in flight above Canada on June 12, 1972. The crew was able to make an emergency landing in Detroit, with no lives lost. This non-fatal American Airlines accident is directly related to the 1974 Turkish Airlines disaster that occurred two years later, which focused considerable attention on the serious problem with the locks on all DC-10 cargo doors.
8.) A British Airtours Boeing 737 caught fire while on its takeoff roll at Manchester Airport in England on August 22, 1985, killing 55 of the aircraft's 137 occupants.
A FINAL COMMENT:
This entire four-part video series is very much recommended by this writer. These programs provide a powerful "you are there" atmosphere as they are being presented and narrated with skill by Will Lyman.
David Von Pein
OTHER AVIATION-RELATED ITEMS WORTH CHECKING OUT:
- "Going Boeing" (VHS Video)(Moviecraft, Inc.). .... "Going Boeing" is a video treasure chest for airplane aficionados. The 55-minute video includes four separate vintage films produced by the Boeing Airplane Company in the 1960s and 1970s.
The 4 films are:
1.) "Welcome Aboard" (1969 film promoting the brand-new Boeing 747);
2.) "New Dimension: First Flight Of The Boeing 747 Superjet" (1969 film, with very rare interior and exterior footage of the maiden flight of the B747 on February 9, 1969);
3.) "Putting The Pieces Together" (1972; a very interesting behind-the-scenes look at how a Boeing 727 is built);
4.) "An Airport" (1960; this short film serves as a time capsule back to the early '60s, when jet travel was a special "event" for most people, instead of an air-taxi service; the film seems to be aimed mainly at children and spotlights Pan Am's Boeing 707 service, circa 1960).
- "Air Disaster" (Volumes 1-4), by Macarthur Job (Book Series). .... This four-volume series of books is just fabulous, as the author dissects many aircraft accidents in microscopic detail. The illustrations in these books are also worthy of high praise.
There's one particular chapter in "Air Disaster: Volume 2" that I found to be absolutely mesmerizing -- that being the incredible edge-of-your-seat tale of British Airways Flight 009 on June 24, 1982.
Flight 009 suffered an unparalleled equipment failure while flying at 37,000 feet above Jakarta. Unbelievably, all four engines of the British Airways Boeing 747-200 failed at the same time, turning the jumbo jet into a 231-foot-long, 800,000-pound glider.
Unbeknownst to the aircraft's pilots, the 747 had flown through the ash cloud of a recently-erupted volcano. The thick ash and soot from the volcanic cloud of debris immediately began to clog the 4 massive engines of the 747, forcing each engine (one by one) to cease functioning.
In addition, the 247 passengers aboard Flight 009 had the unfortunate ability to see (and hear) what was happening to the stricken powerplants outside the cabin windows, with many passengers looking on in horror as they saw the engines literally "light up", with streams of fire shooting out of the engines' jetpipes! Plus, everyone on board could hear the deafening silence after each of the engines had choked and failed.
Can you just imagine the terror of being inside the cabin of a Boeing 747 jetliner, 37,000 feet above the Earth, and suddenly hearing .... NOTHING!? No sounds of power at all coming from any of the engines?! Engines that should be providing that familiar "hum" that all passengers grow accustomed to when flying on jet-powered aircraft.
The fear and anxiety on that plane much have been overwhelming indeed. All the engines have stopped; the jet is "gliding" at 37,000 feet; and flames are belching out of the stalled engines. Nice situation, huh? This highly unlikely set of circumstances is, though, exactly what was facing the stunned cockpit crew of BA 009 that June day in 1982.
The Flight 009 chapter is a rarity in the series of "Air Disaster" books, in that (thankfully) the 747 did NOT crash, and no lives were lost. Fortunately, as the 747 descended below the level of the volcanic ash cloud, the pilots were able to re-start the engines and the jet landed safely at Jakarta's airport approximately 45 minutes after the terror-filled adventure began, although the landing was certainly no walk in the park for the pilots, because another side effect of flying directly through all that volcanic ash was that the aircraft's windshield was almost completely covered in ash and soot, severely reducing the pilots' visibility while landing.
Author Macarthur Job guides the reader through the terrifying plight experienced by Flight 009 in almost minute-by-minute detail. It's absolutely fascinating.
Amazon.com: David Von Pein's review of Air Disaster (Vol. 1)
Amazon.com: David Von Pein's review of Air Disaster (Vol. 2)
Amazon.com: David Von Pein's review of Air Disaster (Vol. 3)
Amazon.com: David Von Pein's review of Air Disaster (Vol. 4)
- "Boeing 707 & 720: The Early Years Through 1960" (DVD)(AirlineHobby.com). .... A gold mine of rare films from 1954 to 1960, promoting the Boeing 707 and Boeing 720. This DVD is a must-have item for airplane buffs, with two solid hours of vintage footage of classic airliners.
- "21st Century Jet: The Building Of The 777" (5-Tape VHS Set)(PBS Home Video).
- "Super Structures Of The World: The Kansai International Airport" (VHS Video)(Unapix Home Entertainment).
- "Golden Age Airlines; 1940s-1960s" (DVD)(AirlineHobby.com).
- "Hong Kong Kai Tak" (2-Disc DVD Set)(Just Planes Videos, Inc.). .... Six full hours of landings and takeoffs at Hong Kong's now-closed Kai Tak International Airport.
AirDisaster.com -- Commercial Aviation Accident Database
Image Gallery for "Survival In The Sky"
JustPlanes.com -- Hundreds of Aviation DVDs
AirlineHobby.com -- Aviation DVDs