I left Washington as news was still filtering in about the Asiana Airlines short landing/crash at SFO today, and I am composing this while on a flight to San Diego, without knowing the full story -- casualties, causes, contributing factors. Behind that flight-induced veil of ignorance I will say:
- Anyone who wants to know more about airline safety, airline dangers, airline realities, and overall how the world looks to people who know aviation from the inside should read, now, Patrick Smith's Cockpit Confidential. Over the years I've often alluded to Smith's common-sense-yet-informed insights about aviation at his Ask the Pilot site. He builds on those, and expands and combines them, in this book. I love that he can see and describe aviation from an inside and an arm's-length perspective at the same time. (For instance, he is contemptuous of the pompous, "fatty" airline language that substitutes "full upright and locked position" for "upright" and adds "do" as a nonsense "irritating emphatic," as in "We do remind you that smoking is not permitted.") Seriously, if you're tempted to watch the latest tick-tock and speculation about this or other airline mishaps, go read Cockpit Confidential instead.
- Or else -- rather, in addition -- please read The Skies Belong to Us. This is a new book by my friend Brendan Koerner, about an aspect of the 1960s and 1970s that is even harder to believe, in retrospect, than the bell-bottoms and the grooviness. This was a time when passenger airlines were being hijacked practically once a week, often for flights to Cuba. Koerner tells about a plane taken all the way to Algeria. Non-fiction writers always dream of finding the perfect representative tale -- a story that is engrossing in itself and also allows you to make any extra point you're interested in. The true-crime account of one implausible-yet-true case is one of these perfect tales. You will be glad to have read this book -- as none other than Patrick Smith has pointed out.
When I land, I will post this, and then see what the sequelae on the Asiana crash are, after six hours. What was known when I left was that the plane had "landed short" -- but with no idea whether this was because of engine problems, wind shear, fuel-line freezeup, wake turbulence, botched go-around, pilot misjudgment, or whatever other factor. It is remarkable that so many people appear to have made it out; best wishes and sympathies to all affected by this tragedy.
James Fallows is a staff writer for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. He and his wife, Deborah Fallows, are the authors of the new book Our Towns: A 100,000-Mile Journey Into the Heart of America, which has been a New York Times best seller and is the basis of a forthcoming HBO documentary.