On April 28, 1988, Aloha Airlines Flight 243 lost 18 feet of its roof in mid-flight, killing a flight attendant who was sucked out of the plane, and seriously injuring another flight attendant and seven passengers. An additional 60 passengers sustained minor injuries.
Pilot Robert Schornstheimer, a former flight instructor, had created simulator exams for his students that encompassed multiple crises. A few students complained that so many things would never go wrong at the same time in real life. But Schornstheimer and his co-pilot, Madeline Tompkins, faced more than immediate decompression of the plane and the loss of the cockpit door. The noise of rushing wind was so loud they had to communicate through hand signals.
I remember what happened over the Hawaiian islands that day in 1988, and I feel a glimmer of hope. A competent pilot can get us through this seemingly impossible ordeal safely.
They were unable to reach the one flight attendant still conscious, who was also unable to contact them. The horizontal stabilizers were seriously damaged, the vertical stabilizer partially damaged along with both wings. They were unable to deploy full flaps upon their emergency landing, forced to attempt the landing at a higher speed than normal. And they were unable to confirm if the landing gear at the nose of the plane had descended or locked into place.
The two pilots landed the plane successfully, such an astonishing feat that it was later turned into the movie Miracle Landing. As I watch the multiple crises facing America now, hanging on for dear life as I stare at the gaping hole where a protective roof used to be, I remember what happened over the Hawaiian islands that day in 1988, and I feel a glimmer of hope. A competent pilot can get us through this seemingly impossible ordeal safely.
And now I remember another film, United 93. Hijackers have taken over the flight. The passengers hear from their loved ones by cell phone what’s been happening at the Pentagon and the World Trade Center. They know that if they have any chance at all to survive, they must take over the plane. They form a team, arming themselves with soda cans and whatever else they can find, a beverage cart, their courage, and their determination. They rush the cockpit.
And as they fight the hijackers for the controls, we see through the front window the green grass of a field in Shanksville, Pennsylvania approaching nearer and nearer.
Every time I watch the film, I keep rooting for the passengers. Maybe this time they’ll succeed.
For some emotional relief, I watch Airplane and am struck by how often the nightly news makes me feel I’m living an absurdist comedy.
Whichever scenario we actually face in our nation today, we must remember that the conclusion isn’t determined yet. Stowaway Helen Hayes could still live. Flight attendant Karen Black might manage to avoid the top of the mountain. Pilot Jack Lemmon might reach the surface of the ocean to call for help. We might be able to stand on the wings in the freezing Hudson River long enough to be rescued. If we aren’t forced to eat our dead friends while trapped in the Andes.
Perhaps we should see ourselves as the crew of Apollo 13. If we can all work together, overcoming personality conflicts and lack of resources to repair the damage, we can still splash down safely and return to our families once again.
Maybe we’ll even get to have attractive actors portray us one day in the film version of Miracle Democracy.