There are many different documentary one-off programmes and series that deal with plane crashes. Some of the series have gone on for many seasons. It’s clearly a popular form of disaster narrative. Beyond any entertainment aspect, there’s also, naturally, the potential for them to be educational, to help inform the public, and, by extension, to work as a watchdog on the aviation industry itself. Of course, on top of the TV programmes (and films), there are also numerous books, and these days also podcasts (see, for example, Take To The Sky Podcast).
The latest series to throw its hat into the ring is “Plane Crash Recreated” which, in the UK, is being shown on the channel PBS America (which is available for free on Freeview as well as the other main TV providers). Compared to many other in the genre, the main thing that stands out is that by using a flight simulator, pilots of various backgrounds, see what, if anything, they would have done differently had they been in the cockpit at the time. A few different scenarios are run through – each one varying the amount of information the pilot apparently has (in reality we have to assume that the pilot may already be familiar with the particular accident and may have trained in how to respond to it). Also, different to what is typical, there is no attempt to hide the probable cause of the crash and save that as a mystery to which the programme builds up to near the end.
The summaries of each of the episodes (and details about how to view them) can be found at https://www.pbsamerica.co.uk/series/plane-crash-recreated/
In this first series there are 10 programmes covering 10 different accidents. I will be updating this post with my comments on each of these – with the exception of one, which will get its own post – but trying to avoid any spoilers in terms of how the pilots performed on the simulators.
- JT610/737 MAX. While I was relatively familiar with the first crash, and then aware of the second accident to involve the 737 MAX that lead to its grounding around the world, I’d not been aware of the arrogance of Boeing that comes across in the footage shown. This was even worse than the “Tombstone Imperative” that Weir discusses (and I touch upon in Dealing with Disaster in Japan) – this was actually deciding that a certain amount of loss is acceptable. Unbelievable.
- US1549/Sully. I have to say it was pretty gutsy of the programme makers to include this one. It’s so well known and the movie version also contains professional pilots showing how they would have handled the situation. However, it’s such an amazing story – which of course everyone survived – that it deserves retelling.
- BD029/Kegworth. This is another accident that I remember, but despite having seen documentaries on it before, I don’t think I was fully aware how much impact it had on aviation safety considering it’s probably not the most well-known accident and is certainly not one of the largest in terms of fatalities. The episode also showed the importance of crew and passengers being involved in a flow of information with the cockpit – something I touch upon in another post.
- PK8303/Pakistan. While I may have had some awareness of this accident, I didn’t know the details. The accident also stands out in this series as it’s relatively recent and the filming of the simulations were done in the same year as the accident and while the full investigation was on-going. I was completely shocked in learning the details of the accident and the state of the aviation world in Pakistan. I really hope that the programme can help those fighting for justice and improvements.
- UA232/Sioux City. This is an accident that I am very familiar with due to it happening (and been shown on the plane I was on) during my first trip to Japan (see “Flying Experiences“) and a movie about the crash being part of my study on disaster narratives (see “Crash Landing: The Rescue of Flight 232”). Given that video footage of the actual crash is available (and is included on my “Flying Experiences” post), it’s a bit surprising that it wasn’t included in this programme. Overall, it was another good episode and clearly showed what a great job the team did in getting the actual UA232 down, albeit with a significant number of fatalities due to the way it crashed.
- JAL123/Japan. See the following separate post: Plane Crash Recreated: JAL123/Japan.
- AF447/France. The main focus of this episode was on the difference between fly-by-wire (Airbus and the aircraft in this crash) and the more physical Boeing design. Although not a pilot, I much prefer the Boeing approach. Imagine future cars with no steering wheels but drivers expected to take over if the AI makes an error. No thank you. I found the discussion on the “startle effect” very interesting too. While the simulations pointed to the issues of cockpit communications and no allowing AI to do its thing, overall I found the implications of what happened and how it must have been for all on board in the final three minutes or so absolutely terrifying. It’s that type of accident that I actually fear the most.
- TK1951/Schiphol. When I saw the episode list, this was the one that stood out for me as one that I couldn’t immediately understand why it was included. Given that the series is primarily focussed on using simulators to both simulate the crash but look at ways it could have been avoided, given what I knew about the crash, the latter aspect didn’t seem as needed as other episodes. Watching the episode, something became clear – there are themes which are running through a number of episodes; planes have many redundancy systems (albeit not for the rear pressure bulkhead – which is one of the reasons the JL123 crash happened) but they are not always working or used, and there can be an over-reliance on automation. Due to wanting to make these points – and in so doing linking back to the first episode and the Boeing 737 MAX (which was still very tropical when the series was being put together in 2020/1) – this episode made more sense. It just meant that the simulation section was less significant than the other episodes so far.
- QF32/A380. To some degree the simulations – which on the face of it are the raison d’être of the series – added even less than previous episode. Part of the reason for this is that it became clear that decisions taken on ground by the crew were as significant as those taken in flight. Also, the fact that it seems as though the cockpit crew on the actual flight did everything right meant that there was little to do different in simulations – which primarily played the role of showing how well the cockpit crew did do. Despite this, it was a great episode and what came across more than anything else was how amazingly professional the crew (all the crew, not just those in cockpit) were.
- BA38/Heathrow. In this episode there’s, as well as covering the crash itself, has details about the simulator used in the series. As for the simulations, they were really interesting and showed what an incredible job the actual flight crew did (or perhaps the simulator isn’t as accurate as suggested). It was also great that the episode (as the one on TK1951 did to some degree) shows the huge impact a crash can have on survivors, even when it was a non-fatal crash. It all helped to remind me why I have never tried to get in contact with the four survivors of JL123.