Reality Bites

Reality Bites: Why Planes Crash: Human Error

There are a million reality shows on the naked television. We're going to watch them all, one at a time.

According to the FAA, 80 percent of all plane crashes are caused by human error. That being the case, it seems like more than one of the Weather Channel's (!) specials on aeronautic disasters should have been devoted to the subject. If four out of five air disasters are attributable to negligence or people problems, they should break it up a bit: Why Planes Crash: Hungover Mechanics, or Why Planes Crash: Air Traffic Controller's Daughter Died Of A Drug Overdose (Breaking Bad tie-in!), or maybe a two-parter, Why Planes Crash: Drunk Pilots - Cocktails and Cockpits Don't Mix.

I started watching this show not realizing A) it's a repurposed NBC News special about air disasters, and B) it was released back in 2010. What it lacked in relevance it more than made up for in self-amusement value, since I recorded it solely because the name reminded me of "When Buildings Collapse" from The Simpsons, simultaneously awakening feelings of nostalgia and misanthropy.

I mean you can see how it would fit:

"Man has always loved his [airplanes], but what happens when the [airplanes] say, "NO MORE?"

Narrated by backup NBC anchor Lester Holt and loaded with "aviation consultants" and safety experts, WPC: HE was much less exploitative than I was expecting. Maybe I've been rooting around in TLC and Bravo's offal for too long, but it's easy to forget relatively sober programming is still out there. And by "out there" I mean "buried on the Weather Channel at 11 p.m. on a Tuesday."

And I suppose anything seems serious when compared to the likes of Teresa Giudice or Bobo from Finding Bigfoot. Even so, we still get a half dozen repeats of CGI planes plummeting into houses or exploding in the Everglades. One assumes NBC can't wait for surveillance cameras to blanket the entire country so they can get their hands on juicy real-time immolation footage 24/7.

And just so we're clear on what does and does not constitute "human error," this does not:

There wasn't any order to the disasters discussed that I could see. The first out of the gate (sorry) was USAir #1493, a 737 that crushed a much smaller turboprop at LAX because an air traffic controller cleared the larger plane to land without moving the commuter plane off the runway. News footage of the aftermath is bad enough (unsurprisingly, none in the turboprop survived while 22 on the larger jet died), but then we're treated to interviews with the controller herself, who I'm hoping was merely sedated so she could make it through her testimony. She asserts at first she thought the explosion was from a bomb, but then remembered the smaller plane. The NTSB determined her error, as well as failures in the traffic control facilities (ground radar wasn't working at the time of the accident, for example) led to the crash.

Talking about airplanes is a great opportunity to practice acronym identification. Please memorize LAX, NTSB, and FAA for the final test.

Colgan Air #3407 was next. This 2009 flight went down outside Buffalo, killing all 49 on board, including Beverly Eckert, co-chair of the 9/11 Family Steering Committee, and two members of Chuck Mangione's band on their way to a concert. I can't say this enough, people: board a flight with musicians at your peril. 3407 landed on a house, but only killed one of the five people inside. The good news there is you can now buy that house safe from the possibility of another plane crash. Flight 3407 appears to have gone down due to pilot error, with the NTSB noting both pilots lack of adequate training and possible fatigue. PBS devoted an episode of Frontline to the issue of regional airline safety and working conditions, which I'm not watching until after I've returned from my upcoming trans-Atlantic flight.

Intermission time:

Most of you probably recall that barely two months after 9-11, American #587 lost its entire tail section and dropped onto Belle Harbor, NYC, killing all 260 people on board and five on the ground. An NTSB investigation blamed "excessive use of the rudder pedal." My piloting experience is limited to marathon campaigns of Afterburner in various arcades, so I really can't judge. All I know is after three successive stories of airplane horror and I needed another drink.

It never fails, every time I see something about plane disasters, I wonder how I'd react. We all like to fancy ourselves potential Mark Wahlbergs in these situations, but the reality is I'd probably be so drunk/doped up on sleeping pills I wouldn't even be aware of it until I woke up right before St. Peter was pushing the sub-basement button on my celestial elevator.

We close out with Eastern Airlines #401, which went down in the Everglades in 1972. To distract myself, I tried to come up with a WPC drinking game (every time they mention an airline that no longer exists, drink (for Braniff, chug). In this case, the pilot accidentally shut off the plane's autopilot, leading to a disastrous loss of altitude. Lesson learned: don't fuck with the autopilot.

I'm starting to see the reason people watch so much so-called "reality" programming: it's much less stressful than reality itself. Time for a Finding Bigfoot marathon.

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Peter Vonder Haar writes movie reviews for the Houston Press and the occasional book. The first three novels in the "Clarke & Clarke Mysteries" - Lucky Town, Point Blank, and Empty Sky - are out now.
Contact: Pete Vonder Haar